Friday, June 1, 2012

June: Salt: the good and the bad

Salt is the new olive oil… which was the new wine.  All of the tasting skills and language that once applied only to wine have been brought to bear on olive oil in recent decades, and our consciousness of different types of oil, different grades, different tastes has increased so much that some restaurants are offering olive oil tastings.  More recently, salt has received the same scrutiny.  For those of us who thought that salt was… well, salt… it’s time to catch up with the gourmet world.

 Most of our salt is mined from deposits left by ancient seas.  Goderich, Ontario is famous for its salt mines which tunnel out under Lake Huron and produce Sifto brand salt.  However, gourmet salt is not mined; it is produced from seawater that is fed into shallow lagoons, where the water is left to evaporate and leave behind the salt.  Different regions produce different salts, and gourmets have ascribed various tastes and qualities to the salts harvested around the world. 

Fleur de sel is the first salt harvested from the salt lagoons, and is painstakingly collected by skimming the surface of the lagoon by hand, using only traditional methods and wooden implements.  In some cases, the best of the best is put into a small canister which is autographed by the “saunier” who was in charge of the harvest.

While Fleur de sel comes exclusively from the Mediterranean Sea and is harvested only in the South of France, many regions of the world produce gourmet salt, and each has its claim to fame.  The Atlantic coast of France, the south of England, New Zealand, Australia, California, Cyprus:  all produce salts that are advertised as unique in taste, texture, and colour.  Even Vancouver Island has a small sea salt industry which specializes in flavouring the sea salt they harvest with everything from wood smoke to roasted garlic, balsamic, mustard, and even banana peppers.

 A pinch of salt on your food helps to bring out flavour, and we all need a certain amount of salt in our diets.  But we are getting waaaay too much!  The culprit is not the salt we put on our food, it’s the salt that is put into processed and pre-packaged foods in the process of manufacture.  The average adult needs about 2300 milligrams of salt daily (1500 for people over 50 and 1200 for children aged 4 to 8), but the average Canadian eats between 3400 and 4000mg a day!  High sodium consumption is a leading cause of high blood pressure and some two million Canadians have high blood pressure because they eat too much salt.  According to a recent Toronto Star article, health experts say that in Canada, between 10,000 and 16,000 deaths each year are linked to over-consumption of sodium.  And we thought mad cow disease was serious!

Slow Food has always advocated avoiding fast food and packaged food in favour of home-cooked meals, prepared from good, local, fresh ingredients.  If you ever needed a reason to consider the benefits of such a diet, consider these numbers from the same Toronto Star article.  Swiss Chalet Chicken Stir Fry with Rice has 2260 mg of salt; Boston Pizza Buffalo Chicken Sandwich has 3960 mg; The Pickle Barrel Vegetable Chow Mein has a whopping 6460 mg; Casey’s Grill Pad Thai Shrimp has 2810 mg; and Pizza Hut’s Children’s Boneless Bites with Honey BBQ Sauce has 1620mg.  And these are not the worst of the offerings from fast food and chain food outlets!  We are killing ourselves by eating this stuff.