I’ve made some famous culinary blunders since meeting my Italian husband. The first was trying to scrub a truffle clean under running water. The second was peeling the “skin” off a mozzarella di bufala. And the third was neglecting to put sea salt, sale marino, in the pasta water.
Believe me: I stood immediately corrected in every case. I now clean truffles with soft brushes, eat all parts of the mozzarella, and know that sea salt—that deceptively humble product of 70% of the earth’s surface—is to be exalted above all things. Exalted, because that’s what it does to virtually every comestible it touches.
I grew up in an American household where‚ as in many others, a spoonful of vegetable oil was put in the pasta water to keep the spaghetti from sticking. Probably since my absence, the campaigns of Martha and Nigella have convinced all Americans that this is not the way it’s done. (Pasta is cooked in salted water, then tossed, when al dente, with olive oil). In any case, it isn’t my aim to talk about the correct preparation of pasta. It is rather my desire to sing the praises of sea salt itself. It is an edible jewel. A drug. The most sublime of minerals. And, so, of course, it deserves some redundancy: Sea salt does make a difference. It makes a difference to use sea salt vs. the other kind. It makes a difference which sea salt you use. And it even makes a difference how you sprinkle it.
The standards in our kitchen are sale grosso (I use the plain Italian variety for the pasta water), sel gris (which I am partial to putting on grilled meats), and fleur de sel, the delectable white crust which is scraped off the top of the salt beds of Guérande, which I use on salads or cooked fresh vegetables together with extra virgin olive oil. These last two salts are French salts, harvested by hand, using time honored methods and wooden paddles. They are, in a word, sublime. A little goes a terrifically long way, and the flavor of your food is exalted without—perversely— tasting “salty.” Here is a nice site for understanding the differences.
As for sprinkling, I’m sure you’ve seen the old illustrations of people standing on ladders to sprinkle the salt from on high, or chefs adding salt with a balletic flourish of one raised hand. It may all seem an affectation, but it’s really done simply to spread the salt sparingly and uniformly over the surface of the food. I like to sort of pinch and sprinkle all at the same time, feeling the granules give way, just slightly, under the pressure of my fingertips.
Overblown as it may seem, sea salt is one of the “daily cures” for which I am most grateful. (God is great. / God is good. / Let us thank him for our salted food.) It reminds me day-in-day-out that the simplest of nature’s offerings are truly divine. A fresh tomato. Broccoletti. Grilled asparagus. Con un filo d’olio e un pizzico di sale (with a trace of oil and a pinch of salt). Nothing better.
My thanks to Ann Moore for copy-editing this post.