The Sweet Finesse of Fleur de Sel

Fleur de sel which means “flower of salt” in French, is regarded as the best salt money can buy, thanks to its elegant snowflake-like texture and, to many, its sweeter taste

Salt, or the sodium it contains, is one of life’s essential building blocks. It is also one of the basic ‘tastes’ that define how we experience food, namely salt, sweet, sour, bitter and umami. All these tastes interact with one another in different ways, but salt is kind of like the ring in Lord of the Rings, “one taste to rule them all”. In other words, it is what is known as a universal flavour enhancer. This is because of its unique ability to make sweet foods taste sweeter, and savoury foods more savoury.

How does it do that? At low levels, salt reduces bitterness, but increases sweet, sour and umami elements, which is perfect for sweet dishes, while at higher levels, it suppresses sweetness and enhances umami, which is great news for your steak.

And while it might be tempting to think that salt is salt, because sodium, after all, is sodium, not all salts are strictly created equal. Fleur de sel which means “flower of salt” in French, is regarded as the best salt money can buy, thanks to its elegant snowflake-like texture and, to many, its sweeter taste.

The tradition of making fleur de sel goes back thousands of years, and is still practiced in parts of France, such as the Guérande in Brittany, where it is collected after forming a thin, delicate crust on the surface of evaporating seawater. Given the delicacy involved in harvesting this mineral, it is still required to be done by hand, which explains why fleur de sel is so much more expensive than other salts.

While flour de sel is laced with a range of natural minerals that give it its full flavour, it contains little to none of the magnesium that gives other salts their bitter flavour.

Because of this delicacy and sweetness, and price, fleur de sel is very much a garnishing and not a cooking salt. It’s not one you throw willy-nilly into a pan for boiling pasta, for example. But its range of uses is still quite wide.

Fleur de sel’s higher moisture content also means it melts more slowly than other salts, so when sprinkled on hot foot, it retains its crunchy texture adding another element to the sensory pleasure of each bite. But a little light sprinkle can really bring a whole new dimension to desserts too. A few grains sprinkled on top of a chocolate mousse, or perhaps a glutinous rice ball, will add a soft but enlivening zing without the bitter punch that a traditional salt delivers.

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In Cambodia, Fleur de Sel is now produced in Kampot which has the perfect weather conditions for producing it. There, the natural processes are also still followed with much of the work from harvesting to drying being done by hand. It is the mark of a truly fine table.

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