Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Where They Love Their Salt

(Below) The salt ponds of Bretagne in western France

In the French region of Bretagne, they celebrate their salt. Bretagne butter isn't simply "butter" — it's frequently labeled beurre du sel. Some of the most heralded caramels in France are made with Breton salt.

Having said that, the food in Bretagne didn't taste noticeably salty to me. As often prevails in French cooking, it seems to be about quality, not quantity.

Historically, salt was used more in Bretagne for two reasons. First, it was plentiful because it could be hand-gathered from the salt ponds along coastal areas. Second, Bretagne was one of only a few provinces in which the much-despised French salt tax (La Gabelle) was not collected.

By the year 1343, La Gabelle had become a permanent year-in, year-out tax in France. It wasn't ended until the year 1790, right after the French Revolution. Sixteen years later, Napoleon reinstated it. La Gabelle didn't end permanently until 1946, roughly six hundred years after it had been initiated.

During my recent trip to Bretagne, I visited the medieval walled town of GuĂ©rande, where virtually every shop seemed to be selling fleur du sel — literally, "flower of salt" — in rustic little ceramic bowls. The French believe this sea salt enhances the flavor of most foods.

If you search the recipe index at, it will turn up 63 recipes calling for fleur du sel — ranging from bigeye tuna to sugar snap peas.

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