On the polite cooking shows the judges say things like, “This is quite a wonderful presentation. The balance of flavors is sublime. However, you’ve been cut from this round of the competition due to a consistent lack of seasoning…” And on the less sensitive series, the domineering chef-god screams, “How many f-bleep-ing times do I have to bleep-ing tell you: season your God bleeped food. That’s it! Get out! You’re done! Finished!!!”
Those bleeps, by the way, are from the TV show, not me.
What crime have these hapless newbies committed? They’ve either not used enough of, or left out altogether, the most important seasoning of all: salt. I think even Lucille Ball knew enough to use it. It gives even the worst dishes a palatable quality and nudges delicious ones into deliciousdom.
Salt is, therefore, without a doubt one of the single most important ingredients in nearly every meal and it is therefore paramount for a pantry lined with homemade staples to contain at least one jar of homemade salt. Especially for those of us living on a coast. Right?
For years now I’ve driven by Penobscot Bay, a large bay but a very small part of the Atlantic Ocean, mumbling to myself that I really need to stop the car, scoop up some ocean water and make my own salt. “Making salt” is a rite of passage, I’ve told myself, that any serious cook must “pass” through. Why? What kind of a cook worth her/his salt isn’t able to make her/his own salt? And what well-stocked larder of homemade ingredients wouldn’t have a jar of homemade salt?
So a week ago I set out to do just that:
“Hey, buddy! You going out on the water today?” I congenially inquired of my friend Adam, a lobsterman with roughly a 1000 traps in the bay, over the phone. I knew he would answer an unequivocal yes, as would his next answer to: “You think you can grab me 5 gallons of ocean water while you’re out there? I’m making my own salt.” I’m certain traditional cooks have been asking their fishermen buddies for similar favors for thousands of years and obviously the symbiotic nature of the relationship necessitated an affirmative response from Adam. I’ve cooked for him plenty of times. What choice did he have?
“No.” And no amount of pleading changed his mind.
The human body not only craves salt but we require it for such vital processes as respiration and digestion. Without salt, an electrolyte, our bloodstreams would be unable to transport oxygen or other nutrients because without salt our most important muscle, our hearts, would be unable to function (sodium initiates heart contraction). Salt, admittedly with the help of the other three electrolytes, makes the blood go round and round.
Early humans took care of their salt requirements, albeit unknowingly, by eating wild game whichhad taken care of its salt needs through salt licks. By eating enough meat we ate enough salt. Over time, we discovered its remarkable powers of food preservation; there have, in fact, been hundreds-of-years-old intact (besides being dead) human bodies preserved in salt avalanches. The earliest known salt works were developed in China some 8000 years ago, and practically ever since, governments have kept the price of salt artificially low, by providing subsidies and the like, because of salt's importance. It was such a valued commodity that Roman soldiers’ payment was actually sal, meaning salt, and the use of salt as a form of payment became so pervasive that we now have the word salary. Lots of cool facts exist surrounding salt: Rome’s first great road, Via Salaria, or the Salt Road, was built when the Romans had to move the city’s salt works. The city of Salzburg, founded because of local salt mines, means City of Salt.
I recited some of these fascinating facts to Adam who remained unimpressed, but he did suggest I head out to Beauchamp Point--a peninsula near my home jutting past Rockport Harbor and into the cleaner water that’s closer to the open ocean.
“Well, see if I share any of the salt I make!”
“Wait, really?” he said, panic suddenly creeping into his voice. What would he do without my salt, he was probably thinking. “Oh, well. Guess I’ll just have to buy some at the store… for $1.”
Heathen. The rest of his family, by the way, aren’t nearly as backwards. His brother Eric hosted a local Cassoulet Contest every winter for a decade and his mom, Christie, made a marvelous sculpture as the trophy, complete with a colorful French chef cradling a large bowl of cassoulet with the national flag stuck in a corner. Just goes to show there’s always one bad apple
In reality, I didn’t mind going out to Beauchamp Point as it is only 4 miles from my home, and it was just a 100 ft walk from the parking spot down to the water.
If Beauchamp Point Road had been opened for the season that is.
The road’s a 1 1/2-mile unpaved (dirt) loop that gets blocke doff during the winter. It was April 27 and the road would open May 1. But I decided I couldn’t wait another four days to make my salt and parked behind the four-foot-tall pile of gravel blocking the road for the winter.
My wife, whom I’d convinced to accompany me as my official photographer, and I had a pleasant ¾ mile walk to the place we could have parked at in another four days where there was a short path down to the water.
Filling the 5-gallon plastic water jug took some maneuvering since the 34-degree water kept numbing whichever of my hands I used to hold the bottle underwater, but eventually it was done. Five gallons or, more importantly in this case, 40 pounds of water. Getting back to where we’d left the car was slightly more difficult than the trip out with the empty jug had been--shifting the jug from one shoulder to the other on a mostly uphill (failed to notice this when
the jug was empty) trudge had its drawbacks. As was my guilt for dragging my wife along since she is scheduled for double hip surgery (she’s not that old, just the unlucky inheritor of bad joints) in less than a month.
But at least we were together, enjoying a little peace and quiet. Over the sounds of my groans and grunts and her popping joints, the lapping of the water on the nearby shore was positively soporific….
“Hey, loser! What you carrying!?” came a screech from somewhere across the water. It was my former friend Adam and one of his brothers, Brad, checking moorings in Rockport Harbor. ”Guess I forgot the road was closed… Ha! Ha! HA! HA!” And I suppose he also forgot he was going out to the very spot he had suggested.
I’d have the last laugh, though: I wouldn't give him any salt.
Back home, I polled my family as to the best way to make salt--I could have looked it up but felt that’d be cheating. The first Chinese didn’t have Google to help them. My 12-year-old son, Angus, suggested boiling it in a pot (and, as it turns out, that is what the Chinese originally did) but I poo-pooed his suggestion, ignorant of my Chinese salt-making history. Recalling the salt pans Lisa and I had visited in Slovenia a few years back, where the ocean water simply dried up in large salt plains, called pans, in the Salina Wetlands, I wanted to go the more romantic salt-of-the-earth method, so to speak. The best way I could simulate this would be to pour the ocean water in a plastic kid’s swimming pool and let it evaporate. We could swish it back and forth with palm fronds or, more likely in our case, white pine boughs to aerate the brew and speed up evaporation.
“We don’t have one of those pools anymore, sweetie,” Lisa reminded me. “It burned up in the house fire (thats’ another story). Anyway, the rats and mice we have because you only went to the dump once a month this winter would probably make droppings in it and drown. What would be your heat source anyway? It’s still 40 degrees out. Gonna put in under the furnace? Ha, ha.”
Actually, that’s what I’d been planning--position it as close to the house furnace as possible. But, now, with visions of rat droppings dancing in my head, I decided to follow Angus’s advice--but with a twist.
I was going to evaporate it in my BBQ grill/smoker. I could burn the fire in the smaller fire barrel and delicious applewood smoke could waft over it for hours.
Hodding’s Smoked Salt
1 gallon heroically gathered clean ocean water
20 charcoal briquets
4-5 12-inch applewood sticks
4-quart Pyrex pan
1) Light the briquets and warm the grill to 250 degrees or higher with the lid closed.
2) Place the water in the Pyrex pan away from the heat to allow the smoke to cover it as the water evaporates. Add wood and charcoal as needed.
3) After 3 hours, the salt has absorbed plenty of the smoke odor and it can be transfered to a 250-degree oven.
4) Once all the water is gone--about 5 more hours--turn off the heat and let it finish drying in the warm pot. If the "product" looks like a failed batch of Meth, then you've done it right.
5) Scrape loose with a spatula or wooden spoon and grind with a mortar and pestle to desired size.
It makes 1 ½ cups of truly the best tasting salt ever made--although the grayish-tan color caused by the smoke takes getting used to. (The other 4 gallons I experiemnted with. Two gallons I boiled on the stove, making the purest, brightest salt imaginable in around two hours; the other two I did the same except when there was just a sludge left I poured that into the Pyrex pan and then smoked it for about two hours. Same results as the longer more laborious method!).
The salt was so good I even decided to have mercy on Adam and share it, remembering the dozen or so times he’d brought us lobsters or scallops. If he didn’t deserve it at least his wife and three delightful daughters did, and if for some reason they didn’t enjoy eating The World’s Best Salt Ever (my expert evaluation), they could remind him he didn't help and rub it in his wounds...