I went to the Île de Ré in early July for my fourth shoot for the Kabel Eins show "Abenteuer Leben Tages". This beautiful island in Brittany is reputed to have the most hours of sunshine in France after Corsica. This year, however, the weather was unfortunately not so reliable, which has a direct impact on the existence of the many salt farmers who live and work on the island and produce the fleur de sel (salt flower) in their so-called salt marshes. Fleur de sel is a particularly fine salt that tastes very delicate, is not used for cooking, but refines the food very gently. We wanted to find out what the production looks like in detail, what you have to consider and what is special about this famous salt, so we equipped Maud Alexandre and James Reno, the two salt gardeners from “Le comptoir des Pertuis” , whose Fleur de sel we also carry in our range, pay a visit.
Maud and James are actually from the mainland and had nothing to do with salt at all for a very long time. Maud is a trained graphic designer (she also takes care of packaging design and her own website), while James is a light and sound designer. The two got to know and love each other in the event scene. They first came to the island in 2001 to work in a friend's salt pan. This collaboration lasted for several years and then it was clear to both of them that they saw their future in the salt and on the island. They found an abandoned salt marsh, which they began repairing in 2007. In 2009 they were finally able to start production.
When we arrived, however, the production was not looking good: due to the bad weather that prevailed in the days before our arrival, no significant salt crust had formed - there was almost nothing to harvest! So we started to send prayers to Petrus (Maud and James always speak of Dame Nature, ie Mother Nature in this context), that he let the next few days be constantly sunny and we looked at everything else that was related to salt production besides harvesting includes: cleaning the salt using a vacuum cleaner specially modified for this purpose, mixing the herb and spice salts, packaging, the boutique…
In the evening James cooked for all of us and it was a real feast! There was duck breast with potatoes from the island, plus braised apples, all seasoned with fleur de sel. As a starter, the most beautiful combination of summer: a beautifully ripe honeydew melon sprinkled with a pinch of fleur de sel. Some of you may already know the trick - I like to use it on pineapple or watermelon myself: the salt, which is a natural flavor enhancer, draws liquid and flavor from the fruit and ensures that everything - and in this case the wonderfully ripe melon - tastes even juicier and more aromatic.
The main course also clearly benefited from the delicate extra ingredient: the combination of sweet and salty was very successful. Thank you James!
The next day it looked much better, apparently our prayers had been answered: since the sun had been shining all day and it had not rained, the salt flower had started to form in the pools of the salt garden. The shoot was secured!
But, why am I always harping on the weather? Because the harvest stands and falls with the weather!
The salt flower is made from seawater in the open air in so-called salt marshes (French marais) and only forms under very specific conditions: it needs sun and high temperatures, a certain thermal wind and it must not rain under any circumstances or otherwise too high humidity consist. If just one factor isn't right, or if two nice days are followed by a rainy day, it's all ruined. Then it's time to wait again. And pray. If you think about it, it quickly becomes clear that the production of the salt flower depends heavily on nature and also on chance. That, its complex extraction and of course its special taste also explain the higher price compared to industrially manufactured salt or rock salt.
The salt marsh itself consists of three parts:
1) a water reservoir fed directly from the sea. This is a large pool with a flap at the bottom, the lid of which opens when the pressure of the tide is high enough. Then the salty sea water pours in.
2) This reservoir is connected to the next part, the heating system : this consists of a tortuous system of channels whose channels or basins become progressively shallower. The water meanders through here and is firstly warmed up by the flow speed, secondly by the sun, which warms up the water in the ever shallower pools. This is where the salt content is regulated: in the last pool of this system, the salt content is 270 grams per 1 liter. In comparison: "normal" seawater has 30 grams per liter!
3) From here, the highly concentrated brine is fed into the actual salt garden , which consists of several basins that are connected to one another by an ingenious system of taps. This is where the fleur de sel, the coveted flower of salt, forms.
The fleur de sel is harvested with the help of a special rake, which is gently pushed under the layer of salt. You have to be careful not to touch or whirl up the bottom of the pool, because it is made of clay. If this is stirred up, the flower of salt will discolour, no longer be pure and white, and cannot be sold as such. In addition, the coarse sea salt forms on the pool floor, which also has no place in the salt flower.
The harvested salt, which is still full of brine and very moist here, is transported to the drying plant with the drawer. Soaked in brine, it smells even more intense than when it finally dried. It then has a really floral and incredibly aromatic scent. It can also be slightly pink in color, which is due to small plankton-like micro-organisms that are in the water but die off as they dry out, so the discoloration also disappears.
To a certain extent, drying takes place on its own and usually only lasts one night. The fleur de sel can then be processed further the next day. However, there is not much left to do, because the natural product is now almost finished. However, Maud and James have very high standards when it comes to the quality of their product, which is why the aforementioned special vacuum cleaner is now used. The smallest impurities are sucked out of the salt. And then it just needs to be filled. For herbal and spice salts, such as the flower mixture "Fleur d'helios" (with rose, cornflower and marigold), Maud gives dry preparations for the salt. I was also allowed to get involved myself and was able to observe an exciting transformation: when dried, the flowers smell more like tea or hay than flowers. But after a short time, they absorb the moisture that is still in the fleur de sel and they smell fresh and flowery again.
And with that I have already named one of the quality features of the fleur de sel: on the one hand, it is characterized by the fact that it always retains a certain amount of moisture, which gives it its special (flowery) arm bouquet. To prevent the salt from sticking to your fingers, a small spoon is often used for dosing. A second quality feature is its structure: the salt flower consists of nothing but very fine crystals that have beautiful geometric shapes under a magnifying glass and in which the light is refracted in rainbow colors. A third feature is their "crumbliness": you have to be able to rub them between your fingers.
In terms of taste, it differs from industrially produced salt in that it is much less aggressive and has a much rounder taste. It is rich in magnesium and many trace elements and refines every dish as a natural flavor enhancer.
This also includes sweets, as we were able to taste at our dinner together with Maud and James. So it's no wonder that especially in Brittany, where butter is usually salted (a little tip: you should definitely try our fantastic salted raw milk butter), many sweets are enriched with salt to intensify their taste. In addition to the fabulous and lusciously buttery typical Breton galettes and palets with fleur de sel (we also have them in our shop), caramel with fleur de sel is also a regional specialty. They come in all sorts of forms: as sweets , pralines or coulis and spreadable caramel cream for all kinds of desserts, for breakfast rolls or just like that.
To see how the crème caramel au beurre salé is made, we visited the Île de Ré chocolats factory in la Rochelle one afternoon and were allowed to watch how a sinfully fragrant brown mass was made from sugar, butter, milk and … flower of salt. which then took on all imaginable forms. While the camera crew were filming and the other guys were doing their jobs in the factory, I had the pleasure of walking around the facility with Eric, the director, looking at and tasting everything Eric handed me en passant. In addition, of course, there was a sweet, salty, buttery scent in the air everywhere... in short: it was simply heavenly!
By the way, after a difficult start to the season, the summer has developed very well for Maud and James: they practically worked through half of July and all of August, producing so many tons of salt that they no longer have to worry until the next season . After all the hard work, the two of them treated themselves to a little vacation at the beginning of September and we keep our fingers crossed that "Dame Nature" will continue to be well disposed towards them in the future and that they will be happy together in this strenuous but undoubtedly wonderful profession for many years to come can pursue.
We would definitely like to come back to the island again...
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Since my device memory unfortunately thwarted my plans this time, there is no separate video about the trip at this point. But if you want to watch the accompanying film, you can do so in the Kabel Eins media library . Have fun watching!