Gastronomy 101, a blog about food and Los Angeles restaurants

PRODUCT: Maldon Salt

One of Shakespeare's great tragedies is King Lear, in which a vain and prideful king learns too late that honesty is more valuable than flattery. King Lear asks his daughters to tell him how much they love him, and while the two eldest go off into mad hyperbole about how much they love their father, the youngest honestly replies that she loves him as much as she should, but that she still has some love left over for others, like a husband. King Lear's blood boils at this simple yet honest answer, she is banished, and tragedy ensues.

But King Lear is based on an older tale, one that has versions in countries from England to Austria, Germany and Italy, and all the way to India. In the version I remember of the older fable, the old king similarly asks his daughters to describe their love, and while the older two profess to love their father more than life or more than the whole world, the youngest replies that she loves her father more than salt.

While you or I may be able to understand a sentiment like that, the old king is enraged and sends his youngest daughter away. Being a princess, she is still able to snag herself a prince despite her lack of the very things that generally attract princes to princesses (kingdom + dowry). The old king is invited to the wedding feast but due to the interesting physics of fairy tales, does not recognize his own daughter. She requests of the cook that no salt be used in any of his dishes.

Upon attempting to eat an entire meal lacking salt, the king realizes the error of his ways and realizes at last that his daughter loved him most of all, as a meal without salt is not worth eating. Whereupon she reveals herself to him and all ends happily.

The lesson here is to understand the value of the simple things that may seem common to us, as they are a part of our everyday lives, but without them, our lives would be noticeably worse. Salt is one of those things, a part of live for ages and ages--all the way back to prehistoric man--and we often take it for granted though it seasons everything down to the very water that we cook with. But salt was once considered precious - the word "salary" comes from the Roman concept of "salt money," which was how the Roman soldiers were paid. Have you heard the saying "worth his salt?"

Perhaps if these old kings were using Maldon salt, they would not have to wonder when their daughters profess a love like salt. Salt has been harvested from the Maldon salt flats for as long as history has been recorded. The great Domesday survey of 1086 lists 45 salt pans in Maldon and the guild of salt makers dates back to 1394. But there is only one company that has survived the long and twisty road of history, and that is The Maldon Crystal Salt Co. Ltd. which was christened in 1882 when a wine and spirits merchant bought the saltworks in Maldon.

After the spring tides in the Blackwater Estuary, when the salt content is the highest, the water is taken and put in holding tanks, then filtered and drawn off as needed to fill the salt pans. The saltpans sit on an elaborate system of flues which provide the precise heating patter necessary to create the salt. As the seawater evaporates, the salt crystals form, in this case large, flaky pyramidlike structures that are unique to this type of salt. The crystals are then harvested with rakes, dried, and then packaged.

The result is a beautiful salt that subtly complements a dish with a mild flavor. The salt crystals are more flake than crystal and are delicate and snowflake-like. Many people proclaim this the best salt in the world, and while I am not a salt expert, I wouldn't be surprised if that were the case. Certainly for cooking it is an essential.

As a beginning cook, I cannot tell you how many times adding a dusting of sea salt to whatever I have made has rescued mediocre dishes or even disasters and brought them back to the realm of the edible. Ever since I discovered chunky, mineral sea salts and other coarse salts, table salt seems like a strange mutant. The tiny uniform grains start to creep me out. Not that plain old table salt doesn't have it's place (french fries) but just the sight of the big chunky pieces of coarser salt makes my mouth water.

I am not ashamed to say that I love salt and that there are people in my life whom I love like salt. But I think they know me well enough that if I were to tell them that they would be tremendously flattered. Unless of course, they were resentful that I loved them only as much as salt and thought that really they should be loved as much as cheese. I have to admit, that would probably be my highest honor.


It looks so painful. Like broken glass.

said by Garrett at 9:46 AM Delete

Well, pinch my salt

little grains of salt can also taste so 'iodiney', 'iodinish'...anyway,bleck

hurray for yummy little flakes of broken salty glass.

said by madame x at 11:23 AM Delete

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