Sal de Ibiza’s Fleur de Sel (Salt of Ibiza’s “Flower of Salt”)
If rivers—the Nile, the Tigres and Euphrates, the Yellow River, the Ganges—are the cradles of civilization, and if grain is its mother, then salt must be declared “Father of Civilization,” for the use of salt to preserve food is one of the cornerstones of human survival.
Man’s earliest beginnings as a hunter and gatherer are linked to salt: Animals would wear paths in pursuit of salt-licks—protrusions of salt deposits from beneath the Earth’s surface—and man, in pursuit of those animals, would create trails that, eventually, became roads. And when man decided to abandon his nomadic ways, grain thus becoming the foundation of his diet, he needed meat to supplement that plant-based diet. Many of mankind’s earliest settlements, then, were situated not only alongside rivers, but also near the paths used by animals en route to salt. But much of that most palatable compound (NaCl—sodium chloride) was situated in underground deposits, beyond the reach of primitive and ancient man. So as populations grew and civilizations spread, salt became a precious commodity.
For most of human history—until about 100 years ago—salt was rare and expensive, demand for it fueling wars, inspiring exploration, and justifying slavery. And as early as the 6th century in sub-Sahara Africa, Moorish merchants traded salt, ounce for ounce, for gold. One of the most famous salt routes led from Morocco to Timbuktu in Mali. Ten-inch long, two-inch thick slabs of rock salt, called ‘amôlés, were used as currency in Ethiopia. Cakes of salt were also used as money in parts of central Africa. And in 1295, when Marco Polo returned from his epic journey to Asia, he intrigued the Doge of Venice with accounts of salt coins bearing the seal of Kublai Khan.
In addition to being used to preserve and flavor food, salt was used by the Romans as an antiseptic and was regarded as conducive to health—so much so that their word for the mineral, “sal,” was etymologically related to “Salus,” the Roman goddess of health, hence the English word, “salubrious.” The pay of a Roman soldier, consisting partly of salt, was called “salarium argentum,” meaning “salt money,” hence the present-day English word, “salary.” Salt was used to preserve food, thereby saving humanity from famine and starvation, hence the word “salvation.” And because the Greeks and Romans oftentimes purchased slaves with salt, whenever a person did not or could not perform to the desired standard, he was typically described as “not worth his weight in salt,” a phrase still used today to describe ineptitude. In the ancient world, it was popularly said that “all roads lead to Rome.” And of all the roads leading to the Eternal City, Via Salaria, the salt route, was one of the most traversed. It eventually ran a distance of 242 km (150 miles), from Rome’s Porta Salaria to Castrum Truentinum (Porto d’Ascoli) on the Adriatic coast, and derives its name from the earliest days of Rome itself, when the route was used by the Sabines as they would journey to collect salt from the marshes at the mouth of the Tiber. Salt also facilitated distant travel and international trade: Mariners could preserve their vittles and sail the “seven seas”; and salted meats and fish from faraway lands could provide nourishment to peoples halfway across the globe. In the English language, the suffix “wich,” as in the case of the towns of Middlewich and Nantwich, typically denotes a place with some historical association with salt, brine springs, or wells. “Wich” derives from the Latin “vicus,” which means “place”; and by 11th -century England, the suffix was being used in the names of places with some specialized function, including that of salt production.
The two primary sources of salt are underground deposits of rock salt and sea water. Salt may be extracted from mines or obtained by evaporating salt water. Rock salt—an edible rock—occurs in vast underground beds and veins, the result of ancient, enclosed seas and salt water lakes that evaporated, their salt residue eventually becoming sedimentary rock salt. Rock salt deposits have been known to be as thick as 350 meters and underlie vast areas the size of regions and countries. Since the second half of the 19th century, with advancements in drilling techniques and industrial mining, an increased percentage of total salt production is the result of mined rock salt. And because the technological advancements made large salt deposits that were previously inaccessible, accessible, and because mined salt is generally less expensive to harvest than salt produced by evaporating sea water, salt prices have declined significantly since the middle of the 1800s. (The invention of the ice-making machine in 1854 and the introduction of freon in the 1920s led to the proliferation of the household refrigerator by the 1930s. With refrigeration a domestic reality in the industrialized world, salt became less critical for food-preservation, resulting in declining prices of salt. But by the 1990s, with widespread health campaigns about the harmful effects of excessive salt consumption, health-conscious consumers began switching to healthier, more flavorful, gourmet-quality sea salts—despite their higher price tags). Rock salt is either extracted in solid form from its underground reserves or by the “solution mining” process, where water is used to dissolve the underground salt, the surfacing brine evaporated to produce salt.
Alternatively, salt may be produced by evaporating seawater, either by solar evaporation or by some heating device. In certain climates, where there is abundant sunshine vis a vis rainfall, the sun may be used to evaporate seawater in a series of linked ponds, each successive pond receiving seawater with an increasing concentration of salt, until the final pond where the salt crystallizes on the floor of the pond. In the “open pan” method, the traditional method employed in temperate climates and dating back to prehistoric times, seawater is heated in large, shallow, open pans typically made of a type of coarse ceramic called “briquetage,” lead, or, later, iron. Wood or coal was the fuel used to heat the seawater. As the seawater evaporated, the remaining salt crystals would be collected. In industrialized nations, the traditional “open pan” system has been replaced by the “closed pan” system, where the seawater is evaporated under partial vacuum.
It is often said, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” But it is also said, “What happens on Ibiza is forgotten on Ibiza”—especially if what happens, happens at the island’s famous “Amnesia” nightclub. But, thank God, the same does not hold true for what is made on Ibiza. Case in point: the island’s coveted salt, which has been exported for almost 3,000 years.
Salt is believed to have been produced on the 220-square-mile Mediterranean island of Ibiza since it was first colonized by the Phoenicians in the 8th century B.C.E. But the earliest extant reference to salt production on the island dates from the Punic era, which began in 540 B.C.E., when the Carthaginians of North Africa conquered the island. The saltworks were in operation during the Roman era, from 122 B.C.E. to 476 C.E. Then for almost half a millennium after the fall of the Roman Empire, Ibiza and its saltworks changed hands frequently—until 902 C.E., when the Moors conquered the island and took up and significantly improved its salt production. In 1235, Spain, during the “Reconquista” (718/722 – 1492) of the Iberian Peninsula, ousted the Moors from Ibiza, thereafter the island—on account of the importance of salt as a preserver of food—becoming a strategic and prosperous partner to some of the most powerful republics of the Medieval period, namely Genoa, Florence, and Venice. During that era, salt production was again upgraded, resulting in higher yields of a salt of a higher quality. With the end of the Spanish Succession War in 1714, the saltworks were administered by the Spanish crown. But by the middle of the 19th century, the facilities had fallen into disrepair, and annual salt production had declined from 25,000 tons to about 7,000 tons. In 1871, the saltworks were sold to a Majorcan businessman who, in 1878, established “Fabrica de la Sal de Ibiza,” the embryo for today’s “Salinera Española S.A.” By 1888, over 1,000 jobs had been created, and production was at 50,000 tons per annum. Salinera Espanola is the exclusive supplier of “Sal de Ibiza,” the gourmet label for Ibiza salt, founded by Daniel C. Witte in 2004, that markets the luxurious salt internationally. Today, the salt of Ibiza is the antithesis of the island’s best-kept secret: It is the Balearic island’s best-known ambassador.
Salt is oftentimes called “the fifth element,” along with water, air, fire, and earth. Traces of salt are found almost everywhere on the planet, and it is essential to life. Natural sea salt, sometimes referred to as “whole salt,” is not simply a compound of the elements sodium and chlorine; it is evaporated seawater and contains an array of minerals and trace elements that are essential to human health. If left untouched by any form of refining, sea salt retains more than 80 essential minerals and trace elements such as magnesium, fluoride, selenium, and iodine.
“Fleur de sel” (“flower of salt”) is regarded as the quintessential sea salt and the crème de la crème of all salts. It is used more as a spice or as a “finishing salt,” sprinkled onto foods just before serving, than as an ingredient for cooking. Fleur de sel is obtained by traditional production and harvesting methods of the “open pan” system, utilizing primarily the sea, the sun, and gentle breezes in its manufacture. Unlike the coarser salt, which solidifies at the bottom of the pan because salt is heavier than water, fleur de sel, like cream, floats to the top during salt-production and must be skimmed off the surface of the water the day it is formed. It is a salt most associated with the traditional salt-makers of Brittany since the middle of the 9th century. Fleur de sel is referred to as “fresh” salt and is harvested by hand. This gourmand’s delight is 100% natural; it is altered in no way. Typically bright white in color, the luxurious salt sometimes has pinkish highlights. It is slightly moist and is best kept as such. Its flavor is milder and more subtle than regular salt, and its aroma is that of the sea. Sal de Ibiza’s (www.saldeibiza.com ) fleur de sel is sold in a distinctive, sea-blue, ceramic container with cork lid and a small porcelain dispensing-spoon, with refill paper bags. An inner-lid maintains the salt’s moisture. The company also produces “novelty” salts containing herbs or chilli peppers or flowers, for example, and also plain sea salts in various finishes, from coarse for salt grinders, to small-grain for salt cellars, to fine for salt shakers. But never are anti-caking or pouring elements included in the company’s products.
Ironically—but deliciously and delightfully so—Sal de Ibiza also produces a gourmet dark chocolate, “Chocolate Extra Fino a la Flor de Sal” (“Extra Fine Chocolate with Fleur de Sel”). A 70% cocoa- content blend of South American Criollo, Trinitario, and Forastero cocoa beans, the delicacy is created by chocolate masters according to artisan methods: A little fleur de sel is used to awaken the subtle chocolate flavors in the “conche” (the liquid chocolate-mass); the precious liquid is then spread onto heated slabs of marble, where it begins to cool and its flavors become fixed; then fleur de sel crystals are quickly incorporated into the chocolate just before it is placed into molds to take form and then cool, the result being a tiny salt crystal or two in each bite of chocolate. Created is a delicacy that tantalizes the palate of even the most discerning connoisseur, the fleur de sel imparting a piquant flavor to the intensely fruity chocolate.