Flowers of Andalusia

13 Jan 2012

July comes to an end in Cadiz and Huelva, southern Spain, where Andalusia dips its toe into the Atlantic, and Europe realizes just how close and how far it is from Africa. July comes to an end, and the salter is ready. He has been collecting the fine crystals of flor de sal, the flower of salt, for thousands of years. But only when the sun sets and the temperature of the water reaches 40°C at night and the wind stops and is replaced by a gentle breeze. Then, and only then, comes the miracle: a millimeter-thin layer of crystal over the salt pan. It looks like ice, but is actually salt. The best salt. The one that adds complexity of flavor rather than just saltiness, the one that dissolves without crunching between the teeth, the one that enhances the taste of every food.
Sunset approaches and the salter is ready to grasp his opportunity. Some summers are bad, with no more than four or five days of crystallization, and others are better. Waiting, however, is always necessary. The salter bends over, half lover and half surgeon, and cuts the white frost with the delicacy of a caress.

Time passes and the sky turns yellow. The salter needs no watch. Harvesting the salt has a rhythm all of its own. The salter stands up and puts his hands on his hips: this is exhausting work. He draws breath and looks towards the horizon, satisfied to be playing his part in the millennia-old cycle, a pact between the men of the South and nature.

The work began at the end of spring, when the rains had stopped. He cleaned the salt pan and let the sea water run in. For a month and a half the waters have crossed the small ponds designed by the Phoenicians and the Romans, moving from one to the other through gravity alone. The winds from the east and the west have blown strong, facilitating evaporation. Through the work of nature, the heavy metals are removed, leaving the iodine, potassium, iron, magnesium and the 80 other elements that the flor de sal possesses and which most other salts are lacking. The sal de hielo, the ice salt, is not washed or subjected to any other artificial processes, but only dried and sieved. Just like in the past, as it always has been.

It takes the patient work of the man who collects the silt and cleans the mouths of the channels to let the water runs free, who feeds the ponds and controls the color of the water, who works the salt pans and collects the salt, who learns and conveys this ancient knowledge, a treasure accumulated over thousands of years. This need for labor has been the downfall of many salt works. Today the salters bear silent witness to a threatened world. Their simple dwellings, faded white but still beautiful, dot the flat and luminous landscape, but they have been abandoned for some time. The rain batters their ruined roofs and every year the wind carries away another piece of wall.

Only water, wind and sea offer a new opportunity each year and only a courageous few accept the challenge of harvesting flor de sal. They are the sons and grandsons of the handful who have kept their own family salt works. Their numbers may be small, but they are committed to producing the best possible salt. Courageous, and creative, they have come up with new flor de sal blends, seasoned with the vegetation of the salt pans, wild herbs and the rich wines of Jerez: Oloroso, Pedro Ximénez, Moscatel. Precisely because they preserve and build on the legacy inherited from previous generations, the members and cooks of Slow Food, the co-producers, would do well to know the good, clean and fair salt they harvest.

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