While amateur cooks may still believe that salt is salt, for most of the chefs and foodies among us sea salt is a staple in the kitchen, key to finishing any dish with extra flavour and a bit of added crunch.

Salt in general has earned a bad reputation in recent years due to its excessive use, especially in commercially prepared foods, but it is actually crucial for good health when consumed in moderation. The differences between “table salt” and “sea salt”, however, are much like the differences between white sugar and freshly cut and dried sugar cane. While theoretically all salt originates from the sea, the mass processing which is required to produce table salt actually changes the salt’s chemical structure into pure sodium chloride. This is very different from sea salt, which retains beneficial trace minerals.

Table salt is typically mined from underground salt deposits, and refined to eliminate minerals. It usually contains an additive like calcium silicate to prevent clumping, and is often fortified with iodine.  Table salt looks like a powder of tiny white grains, which are really crystals of uniform shape.

Sea salt is produced through evaporation of ocean water or water from saltwater lakes, rather than by being extracted from sedimentary deposits. Depending on the water source, this leaves behind trace minerals and elements, which can add unique flavours to sea salt.  In applications that retain sea salt’s coarser texture, it can provide a different mouth feel, and may change flavour due to its different rate of dissolution.

While sea salt has been harvested around the world since prehistoric times, real production began in Canada within the last decade. No longer dependent on the hot, sunny weather that the Mediterranean or Hawaiian producers have to work with, technology has allowed us to overcome the weather challenges and produce a high quality product from the cold, clear waters which surround us. Local salt producers, including Vancouver Island Salt Co. and Clever Crow Herbs & Spices, are able to harvest salt right off the shores here in the Comox Valley. In fact, Andrew Shepherd, who recently moved operations for Vancouver Island Salt Co. from Cobble Hill to Black Creek, was the first commercial producer of sea salt in Canada.

The process basically involves pumping water from the ocean at high tide, filtering it, and boiling it down over a period of three to four days. It can then be flavoured with fresh herbs and spices, smoked, or packaged as is. No additives. No preservatives. No chemicals. Which really speaks to a true Canadian Artisan product.

Fleur de sel, which is skimmed off the surface of the water during production, is known as the most prized sea salt in the world. Once harvested, fleur de sel is flakey and takes the form of flat masses or hollow pyramids. According to salt master Mark Bitterman, each crystal has the complexity of a snowflake; their variation in size and shape creates, in his words, “a modulated sensation”. Because of its delicate nature and higher price relative to other salts, fleur de sel isn’t meant for seasoning a dish while you cook it. In fact, if you expose it to high temperatures, it will actually melt and lose its unique character. Instead, you can use sprinkles of fleur de sel on anything that needs a little extra oomph right before it’s consumed: salads, fish, meat, fruit, vegetables, and dessert – think of salted caramel, chocolate, and ice cream.

While the health of our oceans worldwide are under scrutiny, the cold waters surrounding Vancouver Island produce some of the best and purest sea salt available. Westcoast Gourmet Provisions carries a wide variety of products from both Vancouver Island Salt Co. and Clever Crow Herbs & Spices. Order them online here.