Last week we visited the medieval city of Gurérande (gar-ahnd) and its nearby salt marshes, and there we learned how to harvest sea salt. Curious about that?
When we started the tour, the guide showed us what salicorne (sah-lee-corn) looks like. In English, it’s called samphire, and it’s “a fleshy European seacoast plant (Crithmum maritimum) of the carrot family that is sometimes pickled”. It survives along the coast because salt is one of its components and therefore the salt from the seawater doesn’t dry it out like it would other plants. It does taste salty when you munch on it. They get uprooted whenever spotted because samphire can dry up a salt basin quickly.
The marais salants (mah-ray sah-lahn) – salt marshes – of Guérande are 1500 years old. That means that people have been harvesting salt there since the year 500.
As in … for the past 1500 years.
I’m sorry, but that just blows my mind a little. The reason salt marshes are able to exist here is because the composition of the earth is clay. See?
The water doesn’t seep back into the earth, but sits on top exposed to the wind and sun in a perfect environment for the water to evaporate and the salt to remain.
The salt is first brought into something called a vasière (vah-zyair) – a mudflat. In Guérande, the tide rises higher than usual two times a month so that it can flow inland. They control the water coming from the channels into the mudflats with this small sluice.
When the water in the mudflat gets low, they open this and let the water in.
The mudflat serves to remove all the impurities in the water. The birds eat the eels and the shellfish eat all the bird droppings and all the other impurities fall to the bottom where the algae is so that when it’s time to move the water to the oeillets (aye-yet) – I’ll explain about those in a minute – only the top of the water flows in, leaving the impurities behind in the mudflat. This also means that the water going into the oeillets has a greater concentration of salt than seawater because some of the water has been evaporated, leaving the salt behind.
Salt can only be harvested in the summer months. A normal paludier (pah-loo-dyay) – salt harvester – will have 50 oeillets and will produce between 60-90 tons of large grain sea salt and 2-3 tons of salt flower (wait till I tell you about that!) per year. Of course, depending almost entirely on the weather, it can be as little as 0 or as much as 200 tons.
These are the oeillets in pink and the water reaches them after being further cleaned through the algae basins. Although the translation for oeillet is “carnation” I think the word refers to those reinforced holes for shoelaces. Eyelets? Is that a thing?
This is what the water channels with algae look like.
And further in the middle are the oeillets.
You need to have no more or less than 5 cm of water in the oeillets at all times. This is done with three wooden pegs that look like this (what he’s holding)
which is put into these hole in the pipe under water
When you need a lot of water to flow from the mudflat to the oeillet, you remove all three pegs at once. You control how fast the water flows in by the number of pegs, and when the water starts to get too high, you plug the holes.
Once the right amount of water is in, you need to let the wind and sun evaporate the water to leave a greater concentration of sea salt in the oeillet. Starting around noon and through to six o’clock, you push the concentrated water towards the landing place where the salt accumulates. To do this, you use un las (la). It looks like this.
You walk along the clay bridges and give great sweeping motions (one long push)in a way that’s not so deep you dig up sediment, but where you push enough salted water forward to let the salt accumulate on the landings. It takes a year before you’re skilled enough with the las to be much good. Two years training before you’re a paludier.
The salt that accumulates is called “gros grain” – large grain. It can then be ground into finer varieties. It’s generally greyish white because it includes the calcium, potassium, magnesium and … forgot the other mineral … that’s found in the clay. Guérande is the only place in the world where they don’t wash the salt before selling it. You get it as is with all its nutrients.
Now it’s time to tell you about the fleur de sel (flur de sel). Salt flower. Once the paludiers have pushed the large grain sea salt up to their patches to dry and accumulate … here (the round areas on each square):
then it’s time for the saisonniers to come in. I’m not sure if I spelled that correctly. It’s another person with a different skill set. By the end of the day, salt crystals have started to form on the top of the water in each oeillet. They’re greater in concentration, whiter, and are collected using a different tool called a luce (lewce). It used to be done only by women because it requires a very gentle touch. You have to skim the water to get the salt without disturbing the surface and drowning the salt or pulling up too much sediment from below. This is a luce:
Then the day is over and it’s time to control the water level for the next day and start the process all over again. This is what fleur de sel looks like compared to gros grain.
See how white it is? (If you’re reading by e-mail, you have to click the link to the post to see the Instagram photo).
Gros grain is used for cooking because it salts the food. Fleur de sel has a different purpose. Although it has a higher concentration of salt, it’s used to enhance the existing flavour rather than give it a salty flavour.
And therefore, a cherry tomato that tastes acidic
will be less so when you add fleur de sel.
A high concentrated dark chocolate will be less bitter when you add fleur de sel.
Salt opens the palate and lemon closes it, thus explaining the order of tequila shots with salt, tequila, then lemon. (Not that I drink tequila anymore).
Salt harvesting is a seasonal thing. If all goes well once the salt is brought in at the end of summer, fall is a period of rest until the middle of November. Of course if there’s a very high tide they have to protect their salines (sah-leen) – the salt harvesting stations. In the winter, they weed and reconstruct the banks to their salt marshes as needed and cover the salines with water to protect the mudflats (& algae) and oeillets from freezing.
In spring, they drain everything and reconstruct the clay bottoms and bridges around each oeillet. This is also a period of collective work where the paludiers all team up and work on each other’s salines and hydraulic circuits, which need a complete overhaul every 25 years. It’s too much work for one person, so they dig everything up and reconstruct them on a rotating basis with each lotie (collection of oeillets) getting attention on a different year.
And there you have the whole process of salt harvesting!
Guérande is a medieval city.
and yet people have been harvesting salt in the nearby marshes for longer than than people have lived there. Fascinating, isn’t it?