Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Salt Flats of Gruissan

Trip to Aude: Day 2

The afternoon of the second day at Gruissan we spent in an extraordinarily beautiful place. So beautiful, in fact, that I saved it up for a separate post of its own. It was the Salt Works at Gruissan.

Salt Works? you gurgle. Beautiful?

Judge for yourselves kids...


They've been making salt at Gruissan since the dawn of time. They were making salt here in medieval times. The Romans used to source salt from here. They were making salt here before written history. And they've been making it exactly the same way, from then until now. OK, now the workers wear plastic gloves and gumboots and have steel shovels, but that's about it. Of course, you could say the same thing about half the salt works back home in India. Only, they used to supply salt to the Guptas and Mauryas, not the Romans. And they still don't wear plastic gloves and galoshes. But hey, this is La France.

The museum at the salt works, showing salt-making equipment from Roman times.
They let in the sea water through a sluice into a salt pan. Over the following months, the water is diverted from pan to pan, getting saltier all the time. The hot dry Cers wind ripples over the surface, growing fine flowers of salt on the surface of the water. This is delicately collected and sold as fleur de sel. Eventually the rest of the salt crystallizes and sinks to the bottom. The water is drained out, and the crystals collected and sold as gros sel. The salt of Gruissan is highly regarded in French haute cuisine circles. Some of the top chefs exclusively use this salt. Having tasted it myself, I can see why. It is ... how do I put it ... salty.

And that isn't all kids. They grow oysters too. Yup - those fishy watery things in shells that certain kinds of people go gaga about. The oysters in the salt pan help to keep the water clean, apparently. And it gives them an additional source of revenue. They serve up the oysters in their very own rustic restaurant on the brink of the salt pans. La Cambuse du Saunier is what the restaurant is called, and it is highly regarded by the cognoscenti.

Having taken a dekko at the salt pan, we decided to dine. Actually, we'd landed up at the saltern with that exclusive intention, having heard it was a great place for lunch, only the sight of the salt pans diverted us. We seated ourselves on the high rustic benches.

With a great deal of trepidation, I ordered oysters.

I am deeply suspicious of seafood. That sounds like blasphemy, coming from a Bengali. The eating of the fish is considered a form of religion, in the state of Bengal. I do love fish. When it is good and dead. And well fried in mustard. The way the way the good Bengali housewife does it. But ever since a business trip to Singapore, I have been forced to consider the possibility that the plate of prawns might actually bite back.

It was a business dinner in the poshest restaurant in Singapore. We were seated around a circular slab of ice. Various innocent creatures of the deep were arrayed upon it. Some undead, all unfried. We were supposed to eat them up. Just like that. I still remember the reproachful eyes of a cute little baby octopus.

So, as I said, it took a will of iron to order oysters. But there was the small matter that this restaurant specializes in oysters. I'd never before in my life tasted oysters. James Bond has them by the metric ton in virtually every Ian Fleming novel. So I was curious. On the other hand, he gets a bullet wound too, in almost every book. On the odd occasion that I visit the kind of restaurant that serves up oysters, the figures in the right-hand column hastily make me look for something in the veg section. But the oysters here were reasonably priced. In fact, they were cheaper than even the veg.

I took the precaution of ordering the 'traditional platter' - a selections of oysters cooked using traditional recipes. The way I figured, there was a fairly good guarantee that the beasties would be well cooked à la tradition. There are no such guarantees in nouvelle cuisine. Blandine ordered a sea bream cooked on a bed of crystal salt.

The waiter ladled out the bread and salad, and a glass of complementary muscat wine made in-house.

And this bottle of 'liquid salt'.

It was a revelation, this stuff. We sprayed it on the salad, and it added an undefinable zing. Blandine was so impressed she later bought a bottle from the salt works shop. We had a lot of fun with that bottle, when we got back home. Blandine would intentionally leave dishes unsalted so that we could use that spray at the table. As far as I can make out, it is the water of the salt pan, one stage before the salt actually starts crystallizing.

And then the fish landed up. The stupid waiter took away the bottle of liquid salt. Spoilsport. I took a look at the oysters. They looked cooked. I was relieved. One was cooked with cheese on top. Another was cooked in red wine. Another one in something or the other. But all cooked. I had a go at them. I survived. I was still famished. Blandin's fish looked inviting on its bed of crystals. I made puppy eyes. Blandine sighed, and gave me a portion. Blandine develops this lovely figure, every time I'm with her for an extended period.

Later, we checked out the shop at the salt works.

Blandine bought that liquid salt, and a selection of herbed crystal salts. Artisanal Salt, it is called, and sold at a fancy price.

Look at all the fancy packaging. All salt. Trust the French to turn something like salt into a fashion statement.

Back home, 'artisanal salt' is sold by the gunny sackful in wholesale shops, and bought exclusively by the downtrodden poor. The middle-class bourgeois likes his salt in garish factory-sealed plastic packets, with the adjectives 'Refined' and 'Iodized' emblazoned on the cover.

Of course, the stinko-rich do buy artisanal salt ... imported from France.

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