Portuguese microbiologists are reviving the lost art of handcrafted sea salt. In the salt marshes of Olhão, on the southern coast of Portugal’s Algarve region, salt workers known as “Marnotos” carefully wade through ponds of ocean water each day—raking newly-formed salt crystals with a long, wooden tool called a “rodo.” Workers pile the freshly crystalized salt into snowy, white mounds to dry in the Algarve sun.
Their techniques are traditional, yielding an organic salt this is completely free of artificial processing. The Marnotos need only sun, ocean water, and their expertise to craft this artisanal sea salt.
In the 1990’s, the salt marshes of Olhão were just a vestigial landform leftover from Portugal’s once reputable hand-harvested salt industry. Rectangular pools of hyper saline water known as “salinas” were abandoned once industrial production methods overtook them. A few traditional salt producers remained in the Algarve region, but their special, handcrafted salt was not commercially available.
A group of microbiologists chose these salinas as the location for an algae cultivation company named Necton. Their algae is used for specialty cosmetics, organic foods, and aquaculture farming. Necton’s algae business was slow to succeed, and the scientists soon realized the potential in crafting traditional sea salt in these historic salt marshes. They recruited the few remaining Marnotos of the region, learned their techniques, and began restoring the salinas surrounding their algae farm.
The sea salt renaissance of southern Portugal is still young, just over twenty years old. However, the practice of harvesting salt in Portugal spans millennia—with written documentation of salt production dating back to 959 AD, when the Countess Mumadona donated her salt pans to a monastery, amongst other assets and valuables.
Salt plays an important role is Portugal’s famed sailing history as well. Salt is a valuable dietary supplement and food preservative. Portugal’s famous cod fisheries in Newfoundland would have been profitless if they did not have salt to preserve the fish and bring it home.
Today, people are returning to these traditional, gourmet salts for their nuanced flavors and texture, as well as their superior nutritional mineral content. Sea salt is a vital source of calcium, magnesium, iodine, and other trace minerals that are beneficial to human health. Industrially-produced salts are often devoid of these minerals, and are required by law to add them back in.
Necton crafts two kinds of artisanal sea salt, their Traditional Portugeuse Salt, and the delicate Flor de Sal, also known as Portuguese Salt Cream.
It takes roughly four to six weeks for the seawater to reduce under the sun and begin to form salt crystals. 1,000 liters of fresh sea water can yield roughly 23 kilograms of traditional salt. When the crystals begin to form, Marnotos harvest the traditional salt from the bottom of the pools, raking naturally occurring crystals up on to the bank. Once piled, the traditional salt is left to dry in the sun for another five days.
Flor de sal or, “fleur de sel,” as it is known in France, is a literal “flower of salt.” The conditions must be perfect for the fragile salt flowers to form. The wind must be still, the rain minimal, and the humidity just right. When the salinity in these shallow salt pans reaches super saline conditions, ultra-white crystals balance themselves on the water’s surface. This delicate form of salt has a unique texture and flavor, ultra clean and crisp. In Portugal, it is also known as salt cream, because it must be gently skimmed away from the surface, like cream from milk. This unique salt can form in a matter of hours, unlike the denser, traditional salt. It can even be harvested twice a day when the weather conditions allow it.
The practice of harvesting the flor de sal is emulated from the French technique for Fleur de Sel. The crystal form and texture is quite similar and the processes are nearly identical, but there are subtle differences in the color and flavor that are dependent on the terroir of the different salt ponds. There is more rain in the salt-producing regions of France than in Olhão Portugal, which is why this salt is whiter than the French equivalent. The sediment in the French pools is agitated by rain and wind, and gets trapped within the crystals turning the salt grey.
Both varieties of Necton’s salt are naturally wet with remnants of pure sea water. It is best not to keep these salts in a salt mill. To preserve the subtle flavor of the sea, we recommend storing them in a glass jar or wooden salt cellar.
Necton’s renaissance efforts have not gone unnoticed. They won a Slow Food Award for the Defense of Biodiversity. The Slow Food Association is a global organization that preserves local food cultures and traditions, as well as bringing public awareness to the sustainable production of food. Necton’s salt and algae production efforts have also won four additional awards from local scientific and agricultural organizations for their innovation efforts and positive effect on the local economy.
These artisan salts can be used any way you enjoy, but they are best reserved for special finishing applications. The subtle flavor and delicate texture would be lost in a soup or sauce. The crisp pop and crunch of this sea salt is especially nice on leafy salads. It is a particularly popular salt for finishing grilled seafood and steaks. If you have a favorite way to use Portuguese sea salt, let us know by emailing us at email@example.com or commenting below.
Article by Geoff Marshall, Spice House Staff Writer