Have you ever thought that you could savour the beauty of the sea?
The salty breeze welcoming you even when the sea is not yet in sight. The taste of fresh fish cooked a la marinière, bought in the street market from a local fisherman. Or grilled in old wooden fishing boats filled with sand. The strong taste on your lips after swimming; saline droplets and the thirst…
Taste, one of the five basic senses, refers to the perception of gustation in our mouth, but taste is also one part of flavour, the combination of taste, odour and chemical sensations. There are five basic tastes, sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. And we can perceive about 10,000 distinct aromas. The area of the brain for perceiving scents has a close relationship with the area in charge of emotion and memory. For this reason, smell has the ability to evoke the most hidden memories in a matter of seconds. In the coast, salty is the taste that reigns and the smell of the sea is one of the most suggestive aromas.
For these and many other reasons, salt is a key ingredient to understand the Mediterranean culture. History, landscapes, religion, culture and natural environment are shaped by its use.
Sea salt extraction, a traditional activity in the Mediterranean area, has transformed coastal wetland landscapes. Traditional extraction of marine salt has been done through man-made salinas which work by evaporation of seawater. There are more than 170 salinas in the Mediterranean region and 75% of the active Salinas are located in Spain, Italy, Greece and France. The highest producer is France followed by Turkey, Spain and Italy.
Saltwork in artisanal salinas is a sustainable activity, as Katia Hueso and Theodora Petanidou describe, “salinas’ installations usually allow limited access to humans, so a number of species that nest or feed on them are well protected from human threats. Therefore, artisanal salt extraction is a practice that is mutually beneficial for both humans and nature.”
Salinas are intertwined with Mediterranean culture and heritage. They shape the landscape and contribute to preserving a great variety of biodiversity in a transition between coastal and land ecosystems. Currently there are several initiatives across the Mediterranean area to recover and protect the salinas and the adjacent areas. Their potential for sustainable extraction while contributing to protecting hypersaline biodiversity and cultural heritage make them a paradigm of sustainable models to support biodiversity, promote tourism, produce high quality products used in a variety of industries and foster cultural heritage.
The most exclusive product obtained in the salinas is the Fleur de sel or Flor de sal which is the salt obtained from crystallisation of salt in a delicate crust on the surface of seawater when it evaporates in a shallow pool or salt pan due to the sun and wind. As the crust is very thin and fragile, it should be harvested by hand, otherwise it sinks and would be transformed in regular salt. This has been traditionally performed by women because it requires “a delicate touch.” The fleur de sel was already harvested since ancient times. Pliny the Elder describes it in his Natural History “Another kind of salt spontaneously produced from seawater is foam left on the edge of the shore and on the rocks by the sea.” Its small production due to the particular conditions required for its formation and the delicacy of its harvest, together with its properties as taste, texture, lower sodium content and higher mineral and trace elements content make it “the caviar of the sea salts” and highly appreciated by chefs around the world.
The appeal of the salt is not always so sensorial. Salt, so important in Mediterranean cuisine, is also appreciated as a metonymy of the sea in literature. In fact, in ancient Greek the word “ἃλς” is used to call both salt and sea. We find references to the marine salt across world literature:
“Who of his own accord would cross such stretches of interminable salt sea?”
“That favour of salt-water which for so many of us had been the very water of life permeated our talk. He who hath known the bitterness of the Ocean shall have its taste forever in his mouth”
Joseph Conrad, “Falk: A Reminiscence”
“So sweet thy primitive taste to breathe within—thy soothing fingers on
my face and hands
I feel the ocean and the forest—somehow I feel the globe itself swift-
swimming in space;
Thou blown from lips so loved”
Walt Whitman, “To The Sunset Breeze”
“I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,
slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
icily free above the stones,
above the stones and then the world.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world”
Elizabeth Bishop, “At The Fishhouses”
Experience is always best, so dive into the sea, feel the salt on your lips and think about the bit of the Earth that is now part of you. Savour the food seasoned with Fleur de sel, harvested with delicacy by generations of women. Rest your sight in the Salinas landscape, feel the marine breeze and the sun warmth. Then you will have started to perceive the beauty in the flavour of the sea.