By 9 AM, the temperature in Aigues-Mortes has already risen to 93 degrees Fahrenheit. Men in rubber boots are dragging a red snowplow through the shallow water. A few minutes later, a truck with a crane is hoisting full bags of fleur de sel into the back. As it takes off, a quick calculation tells us that the truck is carrying 12,000 kilos (about 26,455 pounds) of salt, with a street value of more than US $336,000. Not bad for two hours of work.
Despite the high prices that the fancier versions can fetch, salt is just that: salt. And all salt is really sea salt, even if it is scraped from rocks, found underneath stones, or discovered in mines. It just means that the salt evaporated hundreds of millions of years ago and became trapped under layers of soil. Pumping water into the mines or other places where deep layers of salt are found will make it dissolve. Afterward, vacuum evaporation gets rid of the water again.
So if it isn't the health benefits or the taste, what is so special about fleur de sel from France?
It's the structure, the way it feels in your mouth, combined with the romantic image ofl sweaty, hard-working men in tiny villages, the salty sea breeze, and a tradition that goes back centuries. The salt marshes in Aigues-Mortes have been operating since Roman times. The location—a seemingly endless plain right by the sea—is ideal for this old-fashioned way of collecting salt.
Aigues-Mortes pretty much means "dead water." But while there are no fish in sight, the water is far from dead. Algae and halobacteria live in the salt marshes, though those are the only microorganisms found in these extremely salty circumstances. They wouldn't survive in regular seawater because it wouldn't be salty enough for them, but they thrive in the Dead Sea and the Great Salt Like in Utah. If we ever discover life on Mars, chances are it will look a lot like these little guys. But Martians wouldn't be green, since the bacteria are responsible for turning the salt marshes orange and pink. The microorganisms are a yummy snack for the artemia salina, a type of tiny lobster that loves salt and turns the color of whatever it last ingested. The flamingos living in the salt marshes also turn pink and orange after they eat the little lobsters.
Salt farmer Luc Vernhes can speak English, but he doesn't understand it. You have to ask him very short questions and in return, you get very long answers. Vernhes has been collecting salt for 35 years; his father and grandfather were also in the business and the same goes for his daughter. The name Vernhes is even printed on jars of salt from Aigues-Mortes. The man is a local legend. When he walks by, the men work a little bit harder, looking a little bit less tough while doing it.
Vernhes knows everything about collecting salt and loves talking about it. He explains that the saltwater flows inland from the sea through basins and narrow canals. "Due to the sun, the wind, and the dry summers in the south of France, the water will get so saturated that the salt crystallizes," he says.
It's August. After a four-month-long journey, the crystallized salt is floating in its final basin filled with pink water. What remains is an eight- to 11-inch layer of fine powder. This is it: fleur de sel, the NaCl molecule in its most sophisticated form, the nirvana of salt. The slow evaporation process causes the salt to crystallize into unique, hollow flakes that resemble flowers, hence its name.
It's important to start collecting right away: if the salt isn't scooped up quickly enough, it sinks to the bottom and will start to curdle. As I'm walking, I feel a thick layer of salt underneath the soles of my boots. Later, this will be scraped off with a huge grater. It's still sea salt, but it doesn't have the beautiful structure of fleur de sel, and won't yield over $300,000 per truckload. There are a few other places that specialize in fleur de sel, like Malta and Portugal, but because the salt can only be created under these very specific circumstances, it's very precious.
All the salt needs to be collected within one month. Vernhes's saliners—salt—are busy scooping six days a week, eight hours a day. They have been working toward this one month all year by making sure the right amount of water is in the basins, fixing the dykes, and adjusting the water currents to the weather. Some bad luck, like rain or a few cloudy days, can negatively impact the harvest. And that can result in fewer truckloads of crystallized magic.
The trucks bring the wet salt crystals to a factory, where they are then dried. After a year, they have lost their pink glow and are ready to be sold. Fleur de sel will always be a little moist. It doesn't dissolve as fast when you put it on your food and stays a bit crunchy. "You never use fleur de sel when you cook pasta or rice. Then it taste just like ordinary salt," says Vernhes. "A huge pity."
This article originally appeared in Dutch on MUNCHIES NL.