The Flower of Salt

Food writer Jim Dixon, writing on the virtues of great salt.

By Jim Dixon — December 2020

Spirited musings on the joys of great salt

I started importing flor de sal when I realized that everything I ate was drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with coarse salt. I had, and still have, a French-made Peugeot cast aluminum salt grinder (salt mills must have ceramic grinders so they don't corrode; pepper mills have metal grinders). I'd fill it with chunks of traditional sea salt and grind some over my food after I'd anointed it with oil.

Then, almost 15 years ago, I read Corby Kummer's article in the Atlantic. Kummer described a culinary salt journey much like mine, moving from the hard square crystals of refined table salt to the pyramid-shaped flakes of kosher salt to the softer, more nuanced, flavor-enhancing qualities of traditional sea salt. He swooned over fleur de sel, the light gray sea salt from the marshes of Brittany, even if the price gave him sticker shock. But he'd just discovered something better, flor de sal, Portuguese flower of salt from the hot, sunny Atlantic coast called the Algarve.

"All it takes to make flor de sal are the sun, the sea, and somebody to skim the delicate crystals from the water after they start to bloom."

It took me about a year to get my first bags of flor de sal from the idealistic young marine biologists who started Necton, the company that harvests salt the way the Romans did when they lived along the same coast. All it takes to make flor de sal are the sun, the sea, and somebody to skim the delicate crystals from the water after they start to bloom. Flaky salts like Maldon and Jacobsen come from boiling the sea water over gas fires until most of the water evaporates.

Only about 10% of the salt in the salina is available as flor de sal. As the crystal grow, they sink to the bottom and are raked out as traditional sea salt. The larger crystals can be used for cooking, where they dissolve, or are ground into fine sea salt.

We keep a few bowls of flor de sal in the kitchen so it's easy to grab a pinch. Fingers are the best way to add salt, too; bacteria can't grow on the salt (except on the ocean floor near a volcanic vent!). And everything I eat gets a drizzle of olive oil and a few crystals of flor de sal.

Why not Diamond Crystal?

Diamond Crystal kosher salt, the most widely used brand, is made by Cargill. For me, that's enough
reason not to use it. I'd rather my food dollars went to companies, big or small, that share my values about corporate responsibility, environmental protection, and eating real food.

But sea salt harvested specifically for using with food also tastes better. More than 90% of the salt produced around the world is destined for industrial uses, everything from making PVC pipe to de-icing roads.
And most industrial users want pure sodium chloride, NaCl. Salt mined from the earth, all of which came from prehistoric oceans, can be nearly 99% sodium chloride. Large producers of sea salt that use evaporative ponds can drain excess brine while the salt crystals are forming, washing away the trace elements found in sea water.

The relative handful of sea salt producers who only make culinary salt allow the sea water to evaporate completely, so all of the magnesium, calcium, potassium, and other trace elements found in the ocean stay in the salt. Sea salt can be less than 90% sodium chloride, and the presence of the trace elements buffers the natural bitterness of pure salt. Try this: fry two eggs (in olive oil, of course), then salt one with Diamond Crystal or table salt and other with a good sea salt or flor de sal. You can taste the difference.