An expanse of irregularly shaped salt works stretches for several kilometers to the sea in Guérande, in the Loire-Atlantique department of the Pays de la Loire region, between the green of the grass grown tall from this particularly rainy year, and under the many dense clouds, the typical sky of the Atlantic climate. “To make sea salt takes sun, wind, seawater, clay and… a salter,” says Sylvain Dubreil, a salt producer who spends the summer months harvesting salt.
A Guérande salter must first of all be good at managing water. The producers must work directly with the ocean, taking advantage of the huge tides that fill the first basins, called vasieri, then the evaporation basins and finally the crystallization basins where the sun and wind work their magic to produce salt crystals.
To understand all the secrets of this art, three aspiring salt producers from Mauritania recently travelled to Guérande: Boly Ba, Salma Sid Ely and Zeinebou Ba, plus local technician Ziad Dahoud. The women were keen to learn about the Guérande salt works and to spend more time with the salt producers, whom they had already met in Nouadhibou in February during an initial training exchange. The collaboration between the French and the Mauritanians is the result of the work of the Slow Food Presidium for mullet botargo. The Mauritanian producers were using salt imported from Spain, because the supply of local salt was not of useable quality. This led to the idea of creating a local salt works, training a group of salters and producing quality artisanal salt in the Nouadhibou region. Funding was obtained from the European Commission, under the project name “Solar salt production in Nouadhibou, sea salt as an example of sustainable management and development of the local area and as an economic resource,” with the acronym Sa.Sol.No.
To implement the project, Slow Food is working with the local NGO Mauritanie2000 and Univers-sel, the French NGO created by the salters who produce one of the world’s most famous salts, sel de Guérande, so that they can use their experience to help communities in the global south.
Boly and Salma used to collect salt in the Nouadhibou region until 2010, when the local authorities banned salt production in the traditional areas because it was deemed unhealthy. Zeinebou—who arrived in Guérande just a few days before her wedding because “it was too important to be here”—has only started working with salt because of this project. Ziad, meanwhile, is very young (born in 1990), and this is his first experience with salt production. He listened to all the technical solutions offered by the “big experts,” as he calls the Guérande salt producers, carefully translating everything he heard. Together they spent an intense week in France, from Monday to Friday, August 18 to 24, following a packed program which alternated training classes with practical experiences directly at the salt works.
The Mauritanians visited a number of salt works, watched the harvesting of the gros sel and then, at Les Salines de Guérande, a cooperative founded in 1988 which unites around 200 salters, they observed the post-harvest stages, from quality checks on a batch of fleur de sel to storage to packaging. Finally they visited the Terre de Sel visitor centre, where over 70,000 tourists come every year to see the harvest.
During the work sessions in the classroom, the Mauritanian guests explained their needs and discussed technical improvements for the Nouadhibou salt works, while reflecting on the organization of the work and marketing. At the end, they drew up a work program for the next six months (August-January) and a detailed calendar of activities, including participation in the Salone del Gusto and Terra Madre (Turin, October 23-27, 2014) and the technical missions and monitoring activities planned for September and November.
The Salters at the Salone del Gusto and Terra Madre
On Friday October 4 at 4pm, in the biodiversity room within the Slow Food stand in the Oval, the conference “Salt Producers Go Slow in Mauritania” will be a chance to present the project’s first steps and the activities planned for the future.
On Sunday October 26 at 11.30am, there will be a meeting between salt producers from various parts of the world: from France (Guérande) and Mauritania (Nouadhibou), but also Morocco (Zerradoun Salt Presidium), Kenya (Nzoia River Reed Salt Presidium), Guinea Bissau (Farim Salt Presidium), Spain (Añana Salt Presidium) and Italy (Cervia Artisanal Sea Salt Presidium and Trapani Sea Salt Presidium). This will be an opportunity for an exchange of experiences and knowledge between salt producers from all over the world. The meeting will include a comparative salt tasting, and salt from the Baie de l’Étoile salt works in Mauritania, produced thanks to the Sa.Sol.No project, will be presented for the very first time.