I have a bit of a love affair with salt. Always a salt lover, some years ago I was enthralled by the wealth of information in the book "Salt." It caused me to think deeply about salts’ history and relevance for the first time. Later I purchased an enticing salt blend from a shop in Vashon, WA and immediately wanted to use no other. Recently I’ve dabbled with finishing salts not really understanding what they were about until I made my own with herbs from my garden. I relished the way the taste of herbs mingled with salt added a new three dimensionality to food. I liked it!
A Portland friend sent me a clipping about The Meadow, a new shop there that focuses on salt. The article pictures the grinning owner holding a huge chunk of the substance and intrigued, I knew then I had to visit his shop.
The Meadow in Portland’s recently trendy North Mississippi district is devoted to the magic of taste and aesthetics. The left side walls of the small one room store are lined with rows of narrow shelves holding small glass jars containing over 150 kinds of salt. The right side of the store is devoted to unimaginable varieties of chocolate. A round table in the center of the room is tiered with bowls, vases and tubes out of which cascade extraordinary fresh flowers. Just ahead are waist high stacks of pink Himalayan salt slabs. Light coming through the front windows filters through the thick translucent slabs of striated rose salt suffusing the room with a mellow glow. The back wall of the room holds rows of bitters, in front of which is a presentation table.
Entering The Meadow just as a food tour comes through is a coup. My friend and I are invited to slip into the group to hear the in depth lecture and participate in the tastings. We gather around the table to taste and listen. I taste cucumbers from a long row of slices presented on a 2” thick pink slab of salt. Swipe the slice on its serving tray and a hint of saltiness from the stone embellishes the crisp coolness of the cucumber. As various salts are passed in beautiful little bowls we feel and taste each as we listen to its story. I learn that the salt slabs I am looking at are 5 to 600 million years old. Although The Meadow sells salt grinders - “because they’re fun”- the staff reminds us that fresh ground salt isn’t any fresher. Salt is stable.
There are comments, sighs of pleasure, laughter and repassing for another taste, then the lecture is complete and the tour moves on. I move to the salt wall. The staff is enthusiastic, incredibly knowledgeable and makes me believe nothing could make them happier than helping me. I behold the shelves of salt gems lined up row upon row to tempt. They are there for my enjoyment to taste, to covet, to adore. They include a black salt shaped like tiny flint arrowheads, white salt fine as snow, smoky brown salt, yellow, rose, gray, near red and cotton candy pink salts. All the colors are earthy tones and change color again intriguingly as the grind size changes. A dark gray salt in chunks becomes an dusty rose when ground finely. The salts comes in multiple sizes of flakes, chunks, rocks and crystals, little pyramids and even in exceptional spherical balls of various sizes called pearls. The slabs of pink himalayan salt with streaks of darker rose running through them are used used for both cooking and serving.
I put tiny arrowheads of black salt in my mouth and feel an explosion of deep throated saltiness that melts over my tongue and wraps around its edges. A smoky salt is one of my favorites and I can imagine it transforming many food tastes with its elegant darkness. I learn this salt is cold smoked while it is still wet from the sea. Another is smoked after drying on the Maine coast. A Japanese salt is packed into segments of bamboo and incinerated creating a salt with a charcoal edge. The salts are flavored by trace minerals and clays, some have additions of plum, lemon juice or bamboo leaf making each perfect for specific uses. They come from around the world.
The salt pearls intrigue me. There is no way to make a salt ball from a chunk of salt. Well at least no easy way. No matter how many times you shave or cut it there will always be facets. These balls are formed by the action of the sea in the same way it polishes a stone to velvety smoothness. In a particularly saline sea off the horn of Africa salt crystals form and more attach themselves as the clusters slowly grow. As they do so they are constantly tumbled by the sea which continually softens their crystalline edges. The balls are harvested wet, scooped from underwater in baskets. They range in size from tiny seed pearls to golfball size. Who knew there were so many different forms of salt, so many different stories, so many artisan salt makers. I walk to the back of the shop to try several of the bitters, but the salts have captured my taste buds and I can’t focus on the wild variety of other tastes.
You can think this enthusiasm, these stories are all a hype, a sales pitch for selling expensive salt, but my very limited experience tells me that different salts do make a difference. A rather large and noticeable difference. The minerals add flavor and the various shapes determine how the salt dissolves on your tongue and each is unique. But at The Meadow I am so overwhelmed trying to decide what I like best that I leave the store in a cloud of taste, salt lingering on my tongue with an edge of bitters in the background and nothing in my hands. I feel sated by the experience. Only now do I wish I would have picked up a portion of the flinty black or the smoky crystals or a few perfect salt pearls. Salt is beautiful to look at, to taste and invites touch. It's a thing of the earth. A stone you can eat. What more could you ask for?