At twenty years of age, I made the discovery that would change my life forever. I was somewhere in the middle of a very long, unstructured motorcycle trip across Europe.
I was motoring along on the picturesque D836 road from Paris to Le Havre when I made my discovery. In the mood to splurge, I was looking for a relais—the French equivalent of an American truck stop, offering traditional food at affordable prices. I rode for quite some time in my search.
Eventually, after asking a woman walking along the side of the road, I was seated at a nondescript relais drinking a glass of thin, crisp red wine and waiting for my steak.
The steak was superb. Firm in texture, like a fresh peach. With every bite, the flavor evolved—from mild and sweet to something deeper and richer.
Transported, I asked the waiter how they made the steak. This, evidently, was not a very intelligent question—his response was to return to the kitchen. I took a few more bites and tried again to engage the waiter, hoping to appeal to his pride.
Our conversation went something like this:
“Wow, this is the best steak I’ve ever eaten in my entire life, ever.”
“I am glad.”
“Um, how is this steak made?”
“It is a steak, Monsieur.”
“Yes, but it is really good steak.”
“Um, so why is it so good?”
“Monsieur, it is a steak that has been grilled.”
“Where did you get the steak?”
“It is from Michel-Paul’s farm.”
“Yes, a man who raises cows.”
“Um, okay. So what else?”
“It is steak, from a cow. It is cooked with the grill, and seasoned with the salt.”
Aha! I looked at the steak more carefully. Hefty nuggets of opalescent salt were scattered across the surface, glistening in little wells of steak juice, each crystal a fractured composite of smaller crystals, within which were finer crystals yet.
“Where did you get that salt?” I demanded.
“That, Monsieur, is salt from Guérande. The owner’s brother is a salt maker. This is the family’s salt. They have made salt for hundreds of years in the traditional way.”
And there it was. By dumb luck and a simple appreciation for a steak, I had discovered the heart of the restaurant, its connections to neighbors, family, and ancestral ways of life.
This experience was one of several that shaped my love and respect for food. I was beginning to understand that all ingredients matter—a lot—and that, in virtually everything we eat, major revelations await the curious. Salt! Who would have thought?
Over the coming decades, I discovered that there are multitudes of salts in the world, that their forms are legion, and that the ways to use them are infinite. A sense of never-ending possibility has fueled my interest and frustrated my comprehension.
For years after my great roadside discovery, my outlook on salt could have been summed up as, “Wow.” Yet over time my observations and thoughts—and my many conversations with salt makers and cooks—have coalesced into a greater understanding.
From salt makers, I have learned how the most elusive and fleeting nuances of weather, ocean, land, and tradition are adamantine facts of the craft. Cooks have shown me how salting can become a portal into a more vital and personal connection to food. Both, in their own ways, are searching for truths as surely as any philosopher.
That was a long time ago. And yet... people, tradition, travel, the past, the planet, dinner tonight. To this day I still look forward to the tingling electrified zing of connection that salt brings to the table.
--the story above was excerpted from Salted - a Manifesto on the World's Most Essential Mineral, with Recipes (2010).
- Mark Bitterman