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G'day Matt:

I was hoping you could confirm a suspicion I've got that the culinary elite are trying to dupe us or that there is a serious case of the Emperor's New Apron going on. Isn't salt just salt? Recently there seems to be a push to use sea salt instead of your standard table salt because it is either more or less salty or has a better taste. Seems like it might just be a good marketing technique.

-- Downunder Nick, the net

The culinary elite gentrified water and bread; health-bar barons sell us oxygen; so why should salt escape unmolested? Scrambling to keep up with the international dining Nazis? Then (today, anyway) nothing will do but French sea salt, hand harvested during July and August by colorful natives along the marshy coast of Brittany. That will be $40 a pound, please ($65 Australian).

Basically, salt is salt. Sodium chloride. Originally dissolved in sea water. Whether you've stolen a packet from a take-out joint or spent your kids' college fund, you get the same crystalline chemical compound. Common table salt comes from salt mines, deposited when seas retreated from the land. It's heated, milled, cleaned, doused with sodium ferrocyanide to prevent clumping, and usually fortified with potassium iodide, with a pinch of dextrose to stabilize the iron. Feh! Yuck! Pa-tooey! Chemicals! say the serious chefs. For cooking they use kosher salt, the very same sodium chloride from salt mines, but additive free and coarser, easier to pick out of a dish with their little chef fingers. Real chefs don't use shakers.

Basic facts: The sodium chloride crystals advertised as sea salt have been evaporated under controlled conditions from sea water, not mined. Fancy, expensive facts: The designer sea salts are not heated or cleaned and still bear traces of dirt and other effluvia from the places they were harvested. The gray-colored French fleur de sel tastes like the swamps of Brittany. Pink Hawaiian salt tastes like Oahu clay. "Divine! Earthy!" say the chefs. Feh! Yuck! Pa-tooey! Dirt! we would ordinarily say-- if we hadn't just paid the chef $40 a pound to make our vegetables taste as if they were cooked unwashed.

These are called finishing salts, sprinkled on a dish just before serving-- a condiment rather than an ingredient. If you're pouring your fleur de sel into the cooking pot, well, the laugh's on you. The delicate taste of sludge from coastal France is lost. Unprocessed sea salt contains minerals that table salt doesn't, but they're in such tiny amounts they have no particular health benefit. As for how "salty" salt tastes-- all salt is 39% sodium. Period. Sea salts taste milder because there are other flavors that cover it up.

So is this just one more culinary rip? Well, do you care that your meal tastes like some exotic land (in the most literal sense)? If you do, then the craze is all very clever and meaningful. If you're an average shrimp-on-the-barbie guy, probably not. You Aussies like Vegemite, yeast pur'e just a wee step from being salt-on-a-stick. Expensive French swamp salt is probably lost on your antipodean taste buds, mate.

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