Salt Of The Earth
Salt Of The Earth

How Did Maldon Become the One Name-brand Ingredient Every Chef and Home Cook Can Agree on? Nick Paumgarten Travels to the Marshe of Essex, England, to Sift for Some Answers.

Nick Paumgarten

ONCE UPON A TIME, salt was just salt. It was the stuff in shakers and canisters, the gustatory equivalent of the treble dial. You used more, or you used less. Whether it was a little girl with an umbrella, a toss over the left shoulder to ward off bad luck, or a nontaster’s affront to the chef, it was all just salt.

This was more than 20 years ago, but well after people learned that there might be finer coffee than Medaglia D’Oro in a can. Maybe the first inkling was the coarse salt on the rim of a margarita, or a salad invigorated by sparks of La Baleine, or a virgin bite of chocolate sprinkled with fleur de sel. For Mark Bitterman, the author of Salted and the coiner of the term selmelier (which so far seems to have been applied just to Bitterman), the epiphany was a transcendent steak at a relais in northern France in 1986. He deduced that the difference-maker was the rock salt provided by the owner’s brother, a salt maker in Guérande in Brittany. Bitterman came to learn, as all chefs now have, that before salt was just salt— before it was industrialized and homogenized—it was a regional and idiosyncratic ingredient, perhaps the quintessential one, precisely because it was so universal. You could tell salts apart, prefer one to another, and pair them with different foods. You could acquire a salt vocabulary, tell salt stories. If you could be a snob about coffee, beer, butter, peppers, and pot, why not sodium chloride?

I was slower to catch on. I’d encountered a certain variant everywhere: delicate flakes of sea salt, in ramekins or little wooden bowls, in snug neo-rustic restaurants with one-syllable names (Prune, Hearth, Salt, et al.) or at the kind of rooftop barbecues where people served mead cocktails and put watermelon in salad. It was a pleasure to pinch it between forefinger and thumb, or absentmindedly dab at it and taste a few flecks, like a narc testing a confiscated drug shipment. It had a sublime effect on a tomato or a pork chop. But I didn’t think of it as a particular kind. It was just “the fancy salt.”

Then I got wise. On a kitchen shelf at home, there was a small box adorned with the Royal Warrant of the Queen of England and some Edwardian-sounding patter in small print, attesting to the “curious crystals of unusual purity” contained within. The brand was Maldon—Maldon Sea Salt Flakes. It came from a 135-year-old family-owned salt works on the southeast coast of England. My wife had been buying it for years.

I soon realized that almost everyone who gave food any thought—professional chefs, restaurant junkies, people who keep a waterstained spiral notebook of a great-aunt’s favorite recipes—knew about Maldon. It had the omnipresence of Hellmann’s mayonnaise, the old-school cred of Walkers shortbread, and the high repute of Gevrey- Chambertin. It had also become trendy. Cameron Diaz carried a tin of it in her bag; Gwyneth Paltrow sang its praises on Goop. Chef Judy King revealed it to be her secret prison seasoning in Orange Is the New Black. (“This is my heroin,” she says.)

Ruth Rogers, the chef and owner of the River Café in London, declared in her first cookbook, back in 1996, “You must use Maldon salt.” When I visited her at home in London last fall, she said she had been talking about it with some chef friends earlier that day and “one of them said, ‘At last, the British have an ingredient.’ It’s a very chef-y ingredient.”

When cooks talk about Maldon, they inevitably mention the feel of the flakes between the fingers, the pleasing tactility of the pinch. (No one really measures out salt.) The pyramid shape, no bigger than a tab of acid, keeps it from caking. It has the look of something valuable and hard-won, a delicacy that has crossed deserts on camels. It works best as a finishing salt—one sprinkles it on vegetables, butter, caramel, or grilled meat, just before serving. As for the taste, Maldon is considered less bitter, less salty than other salts. There’s a quick savory zing that doesn’t overpower or overstay—“an ephemeral saltiness,” as Bitterman describes it. It’s almost sweet.

“Nothing else has that flaky quality,” Daniel Rose, chef-partner at Le Coucou in New York, told me. Having spent the past 20 years in Paris, where he owns Spring restaurant, he also used a variety of French salt, in addition to the English stuff. But, he recalled, “there is definitely a pre-Maldon time and a post-Maldon time.”


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April 2017