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The Pleasures of Slow Food: Celebrating Authentic Traditions, Flavors, and Recipes by Corby Kummer

 

Rating: (Recommended)

 

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Triple Treat

I’ve long read and admired Corby Kummer’s writing in The Atlantic. When his new book, The Pleasures of Slow Food, came out, I was ready to read. There are three real pleasures in this book. First, the stories about the participants in the slow food movement around the globe are fascinating and inspiring. A reaction to fast food, and a viable alternative, the slow food advocates are doing much to educate the palate and the behavior of consumers, not just foodies. Second, the photographs are breathtaking, taking the viewer into scenes. Finally, the recipes look appealing, and provide a real bonus to readers. Here’s an excerpt (pp. 46-9):

In the relentless late-summer heat of the Algarve, on the southern coast of Portugal, shirtless young men bent over shallow rectangular pools of seawater dense with salt use wooden rakes to draw the wet white salt to the side. The long, pyramid-shaped salt piles that build up look like miniature alpine peaks on a blinding winter's day. It's a disorienting image on a sunbeaten morning.

After a siesta, the young men return to the small salt pans, laid out in a winding patchwork following the line of a tidal marsh area a few miles from the Atlantic. They have exchanged their flat-bottomed rakes for long-handled skimmers that look something like butterfly nets. Again they bend over the water, looking for irregularly shaped gossamer formations that skitter along the top—visible only if you catch them at the right angle, glinting in the sun.

This is fleur de sel, or flor de sal to the Portuguese. It's the cream of the salt pan, the newly formed crystals that float on the surface before becoming big and heavy enough to fall to the bottom. The micalike formations must be harvested quickly, within hours of forming, before they fall. Fleur de sel is a legend in the world of gourmet salt—a rare, almost unfindable, extremely expensive legend. The content and health benefits of fleur de sel and the hand-harvested traditional sea salt that the young men raked in the morning—itself rare in an age of bland, mechanically harvested sea salt—are identical. What's different is the texture. Fleur de sel crumbles at a touch and melts on the tongue. It has a vibrant, full, almost sweet flavor that's a world removed from purified salt.

The fleur de sel that has recently excited chefs and gourmets in many countries is something French chefs have long known about, because they got it from the coast of Brittany. Fleur de sel has always been a luxury ingredient, to be sprinkled over a dish at the very last minute—before it can dissolve into the sauce madere or the filet a poele, so the diner can have the pleasure of the slight crackle between the teeth and then the quick, delicious melting on the tongue.

Only in the 1990s did a salt-harvesting cooperative in Guerande, in Brittany, begin to export little bags of. fleur de sel to retail to gourmet shops as a boutique item. Demand for its unique flavor and especially its texture almost immediately outstripped supply. Few people willing to pay a royal sum for it know that a beautiful, and many would say superior, version is being sold in Portugal at a fraction of the price.

That's because the men raking the Portuguese salt pans began doing it only at the end of the 1990s, when an idealistic group of young marine biologists took an enforced detour from their plans to make and sell algae through Necton, their newly formed company. The detour was the result of learning about the ancient history of their carefully selected site. Their new home was on a part of the Atlantic coastline long among the world's primary producers of a product man cannot live without: salt.

The knowledge of how to care for salinas, small salt pans—a whole language of terms for tools and the cycle of tending and harvesting—was being lost. Marenotos, salt-pan workers who grew up knowing it, were aging and disappearing as their children looked to other businesses to survive. With the salt pans and the workers went a fragile ecosystem already at risk in a heavily touristed part of Portugal.

Its unplanned role in the revival of an ancient trade won Necton a special Slow Food Award in 2001. The award will be of great help in allowing the company to do what it must: make the beautiful, pristine white, delicious, environment-conserving but labor-intensive salt pay for itself, so the idealistic group can get back to its original plans.

A driving force of Necton is the energetic Joao Navalho, who was born in Mozambique in 1965 of Portuguese parents and moved to Lisbon as a child. While earning a graduate degree in aquaculture, he and Vitor Verdelho, a friend studying biotechnology, won a grant to look for new ways to harness Portugal's natural resources. Portugal needed to take advantage of the Algarve's sun and sea, the graduate students thought, beyond bargain-rate planeloads of German and English tourists. These visitors didn't help the environment, and neither did the big hotels built speedily and carelessly to house them.

The students wanted to use new technology to make large quantities of algae that produce beta-carotene, which is valuable to food producers who want a healthful, nonchemical orange dye. In 1994, they began looking for a part of the coastline with maximal sunlight and plentiful clean seawater. After years of searching, they found the perfect spot: twelve hectares (about thirty acres) of salt marshes in the protected National Park of Ria Formosa, in the tidal flats near the tourist centers of Olhao and Faro. Seville is just ninety miles away, and Lisbon one-hundred-eighty. The constantly beating sun and the continual flow of seawater, free of polluting effluents from the industries that mar much of the Atlantic coastline, would be ideal for the cutting-edge technology they planned to use. A few grants and their own educations would be their capital, and they would run the company on socialist ideals: all workers, whatever their position, would be stockholders and share profits. Then the recent graduates found out about salt.

 

For thousands of years, salt was the reason people came to this particular part of the world. The Egyptians were probably the first civilization to evaporate seawater methodically to extract salt, and the Phoenicians probably brought  their  early  technology  to  the Portuguese Atlantic coast. The presence of Roman ruins in the Algarve suggests that the Romans produced salt there, as they did on much of the coastline. By the year 1000, the Algarve was sending salt to the rest of Europe, and in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Age of Exploration, salt helped Portugal consolidate its position as a world power. A payment of salt enabled the Portuguese to regain Brazil from the Dutch.

But the countries of northern and eastern Europe learned to mine rock salt in caves, and in the mid-twentieth century, mechanization in the mines and cheap transport and better roads across the Continent made sea salt relatively expensive. Mechanization arrived for the production and harvest of sea salt, too, including in the Algarve. After World War II, the marenotos found they could not withstand price competition from dirt-cheap rock salt, and abandoned their work tending salinas to find jobs in factories and cities. Portuguese sea salt, even if mechanically harvested, maintained its high reputation: large conglomerates sell Portuguese sea salt to the French, for table use, and ship inferior salt back to Portugal. But the small salt pans that had kept alive local economies and agricultural artisans vanished.

Navalho and his coworkers were upset to find that small salt pans on their own and adjoining property had been abandoned to become communal dumping grounds. The only businesses they saw around them were standard fish farms and huge salt pans regulated by computers and harvested annually by machines with almost no help from workmen. (Private land ownership is allowed within the large national park, as long as it is for nonpolluting agricultural use.) The rest, the honeycomb of small rectangular salt pans that followed the sluices of the intertidal shores, were falling out of use.

"The place was like a desert," Navalho tells visitors touring Necton. "I like to see flamingos and birds. If you don't fill the pans with water every year and you're not taking care of them every day, they'll be dirty, dry, and ugly. And the birds will be gone—not just flamingos but avocets, plovers, egrets, dozens of others."

The collaborators faced an urgent, and large, change of plan. Their first commitment was to the environment. That meant keeping the wetlands—a rare survival in a highly populated region of the world's most productive ecosystem after rain forests—wet. They already employed a marenoto, Maximino Guerreiro, to take care of the industrial-sized salt pan on Necton's property. Guerreiro, who grew up tending small salinas, warned the new owners that they'd better take care of the smaller pans, too, if they didn't want them to turn into dumps. Besides, he said, the salt from the the summer rather than once at the end, ahead of the fall rains—tasted much better and was much healthier, too. He could find the tools, and show young apprentices how it was done.

Through the spring and summer of 1998, the year after Necton began, the regular Necton workers tended the pans. They were helped by a few young men Guerreiro trained during the busy salt harvest, which happens every five to seven weeks, depending on the heat of the sun and the force of the drying north winds. At summer's end, Necton had a crop of dazzlingly white salt.

The young directors were thrilled. They had made a magnificent product. Then they tried to sell it, and quickly realized why they saw so much trash instead of salt on their way to and from work.

According to Portuguese law, Necton can't even sell its salt for the table. In 1973, the government set new standards defining three categories of salt. The highest was pure sodium chloride, the product that industry wants. Sodium chloride is a primary ingredient in the making of glass, paints, batteries, explosives, and glues; plastics makers need it for polyvinylchioride (PVC), the polymer in plastic wrap and many other products. It is also the salt most people buy for the table. Additives such as iodine and fluoride are allowed for table salt, as are the anticaking agents potassium cyanide and aluminum silicate. The second category is 96 percent sodium chloride, and the third is anything below 96 percent—Fit only for trucks to dump onto the road, not for the table. This seeming last choice is really the first: the world's chief use of salt is to prevent freezing.

Necton's salt, incredibly, falls into this third category. Hand-harvested, sun-dried sea salt has a far greater variety of mineral salts than plain, purified sodium chloride. Some of these mineral salts, like magnesium, iron, and calcium, are particularly good for health, and occur in high quantity in unpurified sea salt. Unprocessed sea salt also contains many micronutrients that are washed out of mechanical salt along with all the other impurities that machines introduce. But Portuguese authorities consider unwashed, unpurified sea salt to be unfit for human consumption. The best Necton could do that first year was to sell its salt at the same price as the mechanically harvested crop from their one large salt pan—even though the hand-harvested salt required ten times as much labor. The mixed salt would be washed and "purified" in a processing plant.

 

Necton found a way around its status problems through the guidance of a neighboring natural reserve where another marenoto was still producing traditional sea salt. An administrator of the reserve brought together a few marenotoi in a group called TradiSal, and helped several of its ten members obtain what is likely the world's only certification of unrefined organic sea salt. The certificate, issued by a French group called Nature et Progres, guarantees that salt has been found free of eighty-two possible contaminants. including pesticides, radioactivity, various bacteria, and the heavy metals that often appear in trace quantities in industrial salt because of the machinery that rolls across salt beds. For Necton, winning the certification has the extra benefit of demonstrating that the algae it plans to sell will be produced in a pure environment.

But it won't change antiquated Portuguese law. TradiSal is petitioning Lisbon to exclude two categories from the restrictions of the infamous third class: traditional sea salt and flor de sal. It also wants to create an internationally recognized logo that will appear on each bag of salt, and to create a market that will appreciate, and pay for, it.

"We don't want to be the salt kings," Navalho says. Necton just wants to preserve an endangered tradition and the endangered environment that goes along with it, before turning back to real work – making algae.

The Farmer’s Market returns to Oak Park this Saturday, and I think I’ll head over to see what locally produced, fresh food I can buy to prepare slowly over the next week. In the meantime, I’ll take another look at Kummer’s The Pleasures of Slow Food.

Steve Hopkins, May 27, 2003

 

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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the June 2003 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: http://www.hopkinsandcompany.com/Books/The Pleasures of Slow Food.htm

 

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