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Articles de La Guinguette - 2003 - octobre - culture

Titre Les marais salants
Année 2003
Mois octobre
Catégorie culture
Traducteur Donna Cantrell
Dernière mise à jour14 December 2009

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The salt flats

To make salt, anyway, there needs to be sea, sun, wind, and clay.

Everything, everything is done by hand; that is, the small clay basins are first prepared and shaped in the springtime with a shovel, manually done in the clay, in the earth. Once the earth is dry, we're able to walk on it, to make small walls and to walk around the basins. And in the basins themselves, we'll harvest the salt, and in fact the tool, if you will, the tool for harvesting the salt, it's like a rake without prongs, strictly a plank which we're going to roll and rub against the bottom where we collect the salt in fact. And these are the same tools that were used fifteen hundred years ago when harvesting salt first began. We didn't invent anything new.

You could say that there are people who are waiting for natural products and concerning natural products, there have been so many stories, such as with mad cow disease, chickens with dioxins, and all those kinds of things, so that people are wondering now what they're eating. And so, we and salt? We find that by taking sea water and waiting for it to evaporate, that we make sure that it evaporate as best possible, and then we extract the salt. You could say that there are no additives of any kind. The salt is as is. It's not washed afterwards, it's as is. So, it's true that people are asking for natural products. It's for this reason that there's a small revival concerning salt.

We're on the Atlantic shore in a small village called la Barre de Monts, in the heart of the Brittany-Vendeen marshes. Here, every year at the end of September, "Le coloi" is celebrated, marking the end of the sea salt harvest. And this year we are particularly happy. The nice weather we had provided and exceptional harvest. For the young "sauniers" (a "saunier" is a man who harvests salt) like Damien Chevillet for the association "Sel de la Baye", it was nothing like he had ever seen.

We had a good year this year, a good season, but it's worth noting that the two previous seasons were very bad. There were a lot of storms. Three years ago there was the well-known story of Erika, (an oil tanker which shipwrecked off the Brittany coast in 2000) which caused us to make a mistake: we didn't harvest or at least not very much in these poor conditions. So, this year is the first good year.

To make sea salt, the sauniers let the sea water enter into the basins, which have been dug for this purpose. The sun and the wind evaporates the water, and the salt is collect in little holes inside the basins. It's a profession which is far from being as easy as it looks at first glance. First, it's a job requiring meticulous adjustments, as Sylvain explains to us.

Theoretically in fact, in our work, harvesting represents ten per cent of what we do, and the rest of the time we spend managing the water flow. Very often it's three times a day that little things have to been adjusted. In fact, you see the quantity of water there is in those areas there. There, you can have about three centimetres of water. The best thing is to work with as little water as possible. The less water there is, the more it's going to evaporate. The more it's going to heat up, the more it's going to evaporate. But, say that you don't put in enough water, and then there's a large amount of evaporation. Whoops, it's going to get dried out, and there won't be any salt to follow. Whereas for me, with the salt, I want it to make the entire round of the marshes and then land in the little holes. So, if it's dry, I'll need to add some water, quite a bit, so it's going to cool down my water which is warm. So, it's for this reason that you need to manage the water. And it's the same in the ponds. If there's too much water, it will certainly produce more water, but it's going to take a lot longer, and with more time, I don't know what the weather's going to do, so for me, I want to make the most salt possible as quickly as possible. So, this is why you need to manage the water.

And then above all, you're very vulnerable when you're at the mercy of the elements. Too much rain equates to too much mildness in the water, which equates to a complete halt in production. The bad weather from the past two years has been catastrophic.

To make salt you need sun and wind, so that's mainly in summertime, and knowing when you can begin, that's seen at the end of May. I haven't yet seen it...to begin at the end of May and some years go even up to the month of October depends on what the weather's like between the two time periods. But in this time span, you don't harvest salt every day. It's enough to do it sometimes. This year there was a storm at the end of July and we didn't harvest salt for two weeks, so right away, there you have two and a half months, three months...out of 90 days, that at least two weeks. So, it's enough when you have four or five storms following like that in the summer. Sometimes the season can last ten, twelve days, that's it. So that's why the quantity of salt which collect each year fluctuates greatly.

In the past salt was the backbone of the economy locally. Does the region have favourable geological conditions?

You absolutely have to have clay to make salt because it has a waterproof property to it, but let's say you could compensate for this by putting down a tarp, for example, but there, if I were to put a tarp under the entire marsh there wouldn't be... let's just say that I'd make salt only one time in the little ponds because it would form, it would heat up too much and that would cause magnesium chloride to form which wouldn't help with the crystallisation. That would give us a very fine grain in the end, a type of salt purée that you couldn't work with, that you couldn't harvest. It's mainly for this reason that there aren't any, for example, any salt marshes in Landes because there, well, okay, it is warmer and you have the sea, but it's also very, very sandy.

And geographically?

Around the entire bay is larger than Guérande from a production standpoint because two hundred years ago, let's say, there were boats which came from England and beyond and which came to get salt from the bay, and it's apparent because all the rectangular areas which are like water holes in the area, these are often former salt marshes. And as far as the quantity of little ponds and the salt produced, it staggering.

But the traditional methods had difficulty surviving after the coming of the industrial age:

About 40 years ago, a lot of salt harvesters stopped because, well, there had been several poor years which were introduced, so very little salt production. There was the rise of the Salins du Midi which were producing salt at a lesser cost, and they were making mountains of salt very quickly, and so the guys stopped. In fact, they stopped making salt here, they took their retirement. There are been a rise in oysters, a rise in Noirmoutier potatoes, so the salt marshes, they were becoming abandoned, see.

Today, there is once again demand for natural products, and the salt marshes are in full swing. Two types of salt is produced: the large "gray" salt and the much sought after fleur de sel (flower of salt):

At the crystallization stage, there are two crystallizations. There's the large crystals which are going to crystallize at the bottom, so that's why they're called gray salt because they leave some of the clay, they crystallize with the clay, so even when trying to wash it, to take it off with water, it still leaves a little stain, while the flower of salt is a crystallization which takes place just above the water, and what has somewhat given it its notoriety is that there's a lot less of it that there is gray salt. Some of the little pond could give us nearly one hundred kilos of coarse salt every other day, weather permitting, if all goes well. As far as the flower of salt, if you can imagine a thin layer of the flower of salt on each little pond, well, once its harvested and dried, because we have to let it dry, otherwise if it's full of water, it's heavy. It's good for us but people won't come, so we have to let it dry, and then once dry, that's going to give us two or three kiols of flower of salt. But a little pond covered with flower of salt, you'll see that maybe once a season. Very often you'll have a little corner pocket, which is going to represent 500 grams or sometimes one kilo. And in fact, what does that is the wind, among other things. Some winds are going to give us the flower of salt and other winds won't. So, it's a product which is rarer. So, it's rare, much whiter than the coarse salt because it's at the surface, it doesn't touch the clay, plus it's a really fine crystal, so it's more of this, more of that, that's what makes it a product which is much prized. And moreover, in regards to flavour, the difference we'll say is that the coarse salt has much more of a bite to it, whereas the flower of salt is much softer. It's more of a salt that you'd use on the table in a ramekin or at the end of cooking if you'd like.

It's a question of colour, of size, and of use, if you'd like. Coarse salt is used in broths, in grilling, in cooking, given that the crystals are larger. And then, the flower of salt is used as a finishing salt and table salt. And since it's more soluble, a quality salt, it's the only natural salt. When you talk about quality salt, often it's a coarse salt like I just explained which is refined. The flower of salt, it's a quality salt which is natural.

Facing the salt marshes are two competitors. At top price, there's the mined salt which doesn't have much of a quality taste. And then, there are the sea salts which are produced industrially, the products which come from the south, for example. Is there a difference in the taste of the salts from the marshes and those produce by industrial means? The experts don't hide the fact that it's difficult to find one. The interest is elsewhere:

Well, I'd like to say that it's not so much the taste that makes the difference. It's more the product quality, if you like. This product here has the good fortune of being natural, that is, harvested, dried by the wind and sun, and it's consumed like that. Compared to a refined salt which is refined, whitened, ground, etc. So, in regards to the taste and the seasoning, there's not really a difference. It's more about the quality of the product, it's a natural product, so it's naturally rich in oligo elements and minerals, iodine, salt water, etc. contrary to some products where iodine and ant-agglomerates are synthetically added, etc., so it's two products, two different ways of harvesting.

The salt which people are used to buying, that which comes from the southern marshes, which is produced industrially or from salt mines, which is perhaps consumed after treatment, very often there's no longer iodine or oligo elements, whereas with ours, it's still there.

To be open to natural products you need to accept natural methods. The water in which the salt crystallizes is far from being clear...

The pinkish colour which is in the little ponds comes from phytoplankton, part oxide, part iron, which there is in the water and phytoplankton which is present in salt water, but it's so dispersed that you don't really see the pinkish colour, and it's true that, with salt water, the little ponds where the salt is harvested, it's the end of the line, it's there where everything accumulates, including the phytoplankton. This phytoplankton is in the shrimp we eat, and even then in microscopic quantities, so, you don't see them, and there's so much salt in the little ponds that these little shrimp die and that produces the colour in the water and sometimes in the salt. And to follow along with the story, this is why flamingos are pink. It's because they ate a shrimp, which ate a shrimp, which ate a... it's the same thing with trout, with their pink skin, it comes from that.

And there are the little "extras" which go with it:

So, let's say there's a shell in the coarse salt, often you'll see it. Okay, I won't hide from you that you can have other things in there that you don't see, but well, at the time... otherwise, they'll go back to the industrial method where there are filters and machines and all that. So, when you see some dirt or sprig of grass or a bit of shell or something, we take it out, but it's true that you mustn't be deluded, you may have some little things, little bits of clay, little things like that. It's...well, it remains a natural product. We try to do our best. We wash it to the fullest.

The harvesters of the "Sel de la Baye" don't have any trouble finding customers. It's rather on the product side where the troubles are. Now, everything depends on the weather.

We don't have a lot of stock either, so I'm personally... here, I'm speaking personally, I sell what I've harvested. That's what I'm going to sell this winter or next spring, and then the cycle will have finished. It will have come full circle. You'll need to reproduce the following year, not any earlier.

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Notes

With questions or for more information, please contact Alistair Mills (alistair.mills@btinternet.com)
Updated 14 December 2009

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