Thursday, December 22, 2011

Finishing & Sea Salts at The Meadow - Salt Tasting

As an avowed saltaholic, I am still ignorant of all the wonders and kinds of finishing salts available and the proper use of them. As a person interested in food, I had finishing salt on my list of subjects to learn more about. I was aware of the numerous types of finishing salts, but had never ventured much past packaged sea and rock salts. I had been online window shopping for a while and found it coincidental when Blair at the Sacramento Bee wrote on Exploring the wonders of salt , a review of a book I had been looking into - "Salted: A Manifesto on the World's Most Essential Mineral, With Recipes" by Mark Bitterman.
 
Mark Bitterman is owner of The Meadow , a store in Portland that specializes in finishing salts, chocolates, bitters, and flowers. Last year he opened a second store in New York City. He is truly gifted in how he writes and explains the different salts. For instance, "The salt deposits were capped under a hermetic layer of volcanic ash, protecting them from external contaminants, so you are literally tasting the flavors of the earth’s primordial oceans. Over the millennia, these salt crystals have taken on the translucent colors of cranberry and tangerine gemstones. This finishing salt is suitable for use in a grinder, whole in cooking, or as decoration at the table, or on special dishes. It is very mild, perfectly balanced, and slightly sweet, with a clean finish. Try it on seafood, ceviche, and salads of cucumber, lime, and chilis." How can you not be entranced after reading that?

I spent some vacation days in Portland when I went north for Thanksgiving  and decided to check out The Meadow in person.
 
When I went to college in Portland in the 80s any decent business or restaurant was in the downtown area. Portland has seen a revitalization across the city and I was surprised to see that most of the renowned restaurants are now on the east side of the river in the many eastside neighborhoods. I ventured to Mississippi Avenue, an area that was once known more for its hookers and drug deals. Now there are several nice eateries, shopping centers, and The Meadow.
 
The Meadow is small and tucked back from the sidewalk. Inside can be a bit cramped if there are a few shoppers at one time. Two wall sections are filled top to bottom with the finishing salts. Another wall has the chocolates while the rear of the store has mostly liqueurs and bitters.

 
My focus was on the finishing salts and I was helped by Jordan, who was happy to answer any questions. The smallest jars are 1.5 ounces and range from $4 to $9. One of these little jars is labeled as "Sample" so that you can shake out a bit to taste. Jordan explained that the three factors for distinguishing finishing salts were moisture, mineral content, and texture, as in the crystal structure.

The finishing salts are laid out by types. 
  • fleur de sel - sea salts
  • sel gris - more mineralized sea salts
  • rock salts
  • infused salts - infused with herbs or flavors
  • flake salts
  • smoked salts
 
Some of those categories are broken down even further.


Fleur de sel and sel gris are closely related in that they come from the same ponds. Salt miners collect sea salt into large ponds and let the water evaporate to leave the salt behind. The top layer is scraped for the fleur de sel, which is moist, flakey, and pure. The lower levels will retain more mineral content and it is scraped for the sel gris, also moist and flakey, but with more mineral taste. Salt water is different everywhere in the world due to such things as rain amounts, mineral content of the land nearby, and other environmental factors. Therefore, a fleur de sel harvested in Bali will taste very different from one harvested in Wales. Fleur de sels are the most versatile and a must-have for any chef's kitchen.


Mineral salts are also quarried as rock salts from the land. While sea salt will be moist, rock salt is exactly that -rocky. You often use a salt grinder or a grater to crush or granulize the salt. Himalayan salt block is also quarried into large cooking blocks, which we'll get into in a moment.


The smoked salts are just that. Set into a cold smoke environment so that they absorb that smokey flavor. These are particularly good on meats. 


Infused salts are most often infused with herbs. But I bought a small jar of lemon salt which I have fallen in love with. It has beautiful pyramid shaped flakes. You can take a single flake of salt, put it on your tongue and it will absolutely explode with salty lemon flavor. This stuff is a must-buy in my book. Fantastic on fish, of course, but also good on salads and sweets. 

In most of these salts there can be a variety of texture or crystal structure. "Crystals shaped in flakes, pyramids, granules, chunks, strata, fractalized blocks, contain a complex mix of trace minerals, and may also contain varying degrees of residual moisture." 




I can't wait to get around to buying a Himalayan salt block. If you freeze it, you can then serve ice cream, sorbets, or other frozen treats. At room temperature, serve cheeses, fruits, and cold cuts on them. Or you can heat them up on a grill or stove top until they are super hot (handle carefully, of course) and then use them at the table to cook thin cuts of meats or seafood. All of these methods infuse a highlighting hint of salt to enhance the flavor of the food. 


a variety of salts I've collected so far-check out the pyramid flake top left



I returned home with a few items, including The Meadow Salt Set - a set containing six of The Meadow's favorite selections:
I invited Suzanne over for a salt tasting in which I cooked some roasted potatoes and grilled a steak without any seasoning. We then sat down with a plate of 10 different finishing salts laid out and tried them all. Suzanne admitted she was not a salter of her foods and knew nothing except for table salt. To her the world of finishing salts and the variations were a revelation. We were amazed as a piece of meat could change from smokey savory to one with sweet undertones when you switched to a different finishing salt. Some finishing salts were not so noticeable for their flavor, but they added their texture to the experience - crunchy for a burst of flavor or melting on your tongue more subtlety. 


Last summer I had received a chocolate caramel set with a different finishing salt on top of each piece. It was amazing how the salts changed the flavor of the chocolate caramel. That will be my next fun salt tasting - to make my own batch of caramels and then top them with my new collection.


Bitterman encourages you to decrease the amount of salt in your cooking so that you can, instead, play with finishing salts at the end. I look forward to doing so.
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