Imagine a condiment so delicate that at one point in history, only women were allowed to harvest it…men were not allowed. Why? Supposedly, men weren’t deft or gentle enough for the task!
Such is the fascinating history of fleur de sel, an ancient and exquisite salt popular with chefs and home cooks today. Of course, a lot in the world has changed since the salt’s early days; obviously, anyone of any gender can harvest and handle it now. But for those of us new to fleur de sel, we might be curious not just about how to use it, but about where it comes from, too. After all, it has a very French-sounding name!
Does fleur de sel really come from France? Where exactly? And what’s the history behind it? How is it harvested and made?
Read on to learn more about where fleur de sel comes from, plus recommendations to help you enjoy this condiment to its fullest potential…all while learning about its origins!
What is fleur de sel?
According to many a French chef (including our Michelin star chef and partner, Dominique Le Stanc!), fleur de sel is one of the finest salts you can use in the culinary world. Because of this, it is often dubbed “the caviar of salts.”
Fleur de sel is French for “flower of salt,” or literally, “salt flower.” In Spanish and Portuguese it goes by flor de sal, and it has many other names in other languages around the globe, too.
Can you pick a bouquet of this precious condiment? No, not exactly! After all, fleur de sel is not an actual flower. Rather, it’s a flower-shaped deposit of salt that “blooms” on the surface of the sea, a phenomenon that occurs in nature and only under certain conditions.
Thousands of years ago, people near the Mediterranean region (such as France, Italy, and Greece) learned how to divert this salty natural wonder into marshes and salt pans, letting the salt bloom and produce in larger amounts for commercial sale. In both the sea and in these man-made clay salt ponds (called oeillets in French), the salt forms as seawater evaporates when exposed to the perfect amounts of sunlight, an anomaly best found and utilized with help from Mediterranean climate to produce the sea salt.
Some of this salt crystallizes on pool bottoms as a quality of salt called “sel gris” (grey salt). Meanwhile, a higher quality salt made up of fine, fluffy, cloud-like crystals forms atop the water’s surface in flower- and snowflake-like patterns, thus the name. Even the slightest breeze or rainfall can disturb these fragile flowers, and ruin the product…which is why the technique has required mastering by the French over hundreds and hundreds of years.
This is fleur de sel!
The origins and history of fleur de sel
Ordinary salt itself is taken for granted today in the developed culinary world. It’s found just about anywhere, and is widely available. At one time however, the mineral-rich condiment was considered just as precious (if not more precious) than gold! And just like gold, salt was (and still is) chiefly mined from the earth.
In fact, mining is the principal source of most table salt today, especially the common iodized salt easiest to find at stores. In ancient times too, large groups of miners or peasants were employed to mine salt in salt-rich regions. The alternative to mining salt, both today and in the past? Extracting it from the sea.
The sea of course is where we get all our sea salt, kosher salt, and yes, fleur de sel, too. One thing that sets apart sea salt from mined salt: over the years and through ancient times, the practice of harvesting sea salt has always been something special. It’s almost considered an art, or at the very least a cultural tradition that deserves preservation. Some food experts even say that the heritage of fleur de sel is endangered, as the hundred year-old knowledge behind its production is very rare indeed, and exclusive to Mediterranean cultures (and most notably the French).
It’s thought that the Egyptians, Gauls (native mainland European Celts), Phoenicians, or perhaps even all these cultures developed the techniques for capturing fleur de sel over millennia, afterwards spreading the tradition through the Mediterranean and Atlantic countries. The Romans were believed to have picked it up sometime later, and were most likely the culture that first established its prevalence in the Mediterranean and other areas famous for fleur de sel (especially in France).
When compared to all other grades of sea salt (and when factoring in where it comes from, too), fleur de sel as deeper roots in history, culinary tradition, and artisan craftsmanship than all other salt types. It also comes closest to how sea salt was traditionally made in antiquated times.
Is fleur de sel only made in France?
Despite its French name, fleur de sel is not exclusively made in France. Many culinary experts will also say that “true” fleur de sel can only come from the areas of its true origin: the Mediterranean. Our very own fleur de sel comes from the Italian island nation of Sicily, and is hand-harvested using the age-old artisan techniques that exclusively capture all the vital essences of this culinary delight!
It has light texture and even a noted sweetness that accompanies its saltiness. Some even say it has a floral quality, with subtle notes of violets as an aftertaste.
With fleur de sel becoming so in demand among chefs and foodies, other parts of the world have taken up the skill and art of creating the product. Fleur de sel is also made on the American west coast, Canada, Brazil, and even Mexico, where the Aztecs and Mayans perfected their own techniques for a fleur de sel-like salt for thousands of years.
However, most producers of fleur de sel in the world today are credited to learning their techniques from the French…though they don’t have the hundreds of years of experience and traditional knowledge to match!
How is fleur de sel harvested?
Hundreds of years went into refining the harvesting practices of fleur de sel. It was in the 7th Century (600 A.C.E) that deep canals were first excavated for transporting seawater from the sea to inland or island saltwater marshes. These canals still exist today, and they still help produce the world’s finest fleur de sel.
As the marshland pools fill and evaporate under perfect sunny and windless weather conditions, salt forms crystal flowers on the water’s surface like a thin crust. These crystals are then carefully skimmed from atop the water with a rake-like tool (called a simoussi in French), very much like cream is “creamed” from milk. Finally, it is gathered, delicately, and allowed to dry in the sun in basket-like boxes. All of this must be carefully, slowly, and painstakingly done by hand…and this is one of the reasons why fleur de sel can have a higher price!
In this same vein, because the whole process is done by hand (and not mechanically as with other salts), only very little salt is harvested with each “bloom”…only a few pounds at a time. This also explains why fleur de sel is so precious, though nothing makes it a finer and more sought-out ingredient than its superb flavor and complexity!
How do I use fleur de sel?
Speaking of the best thing about fleur de sel, this salt’s intricate essences of sweet, salty, and floral flavor make it a seasoning that demands a different sort of use to successfully exhibit its culinary wonders. The first rule of accomplishing this: don’t cook with it!
Reserve your common table and sea salts for recipe requirements, not your fleur de sel (that is, unless it calls for a sprinkling of salt to finish the meal!). This lavish condiment fetches both a high price and stunning yet subtle flavor notes, but these will be easily overwhelmed in the cooking process. This is why many dub fleur de sel a “finishing salt.”
If you find yourself face-to-face with fleur de sel and handling this cherished prize in the kitchen, you may want to save it only for special occasions and meals. Use it in small amounts, be sure to make it last, and always, always, always sprinkle this finishing salt lightly on food (or to taste) after cooking, and as your very last step before serving.
Once you have a taste, you won’t ever experience salt in the same way again!