Monday, September 1, 2014


 From Florida to Brittany, one side of the Atlantic to the other, across the pond. Oceanside, beachside, salt water, seafood. Salted butter was a thing of my childhood and I knew no other. Salted butter for eating, dabbing on baked potatoes, plopping on steaming oatmeal, melting onto oven-warm muffins and toaster-warm cherry Poptarts. Tossing into popcorn and making grilled cheese sandwiches. Salted butter for both savory and sweet. I knew nothing of saltless sweet butter until I moved north. My New York cousins swore by sweet, unsalted butter for cooking and baking alike and when I tried it, spread on a piece of bread, I could not understand the passion for something that tasted of nothing.

 Until I got used to it.

 Then I moved to Brittany, or close enough to it both physically and historically, to be confronted once again by the salt-no salt quandary. Our Breton friends swear by salted, come hell or high (sea) water, the ocean in their blood. Little by little I drop my sweet butter desires and focus instead on salt. Salted butter in the preparation of a gâteau nantais, for the local caramel au beurre salé, melted onto a crêpe then dusted with sugar. Beurre blanc nantais.

 A smear of salted butter on a toasted bagel. A smear of salted butter on brown bread, a bite and a slurp of oyster.

 Back to my childhood, salt of the earth.

 Little packets of salt purchased at the market, salt direct from the salt marshes a mere stone's throw from the city. Salt the color of a sandy beach, pale gray, and salt the deep white of pure snow on a bright day. Salt speckled with herbs and spices, thyme, basil, shallots. Salt blended golden with curry powder or ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon. Flecked with miniscule bits of black truffle.

 "You forgot to add salt," he says. "Again." Food bland, sauce has no flavor, spices fall flat and gravy insipid. "It's not bad," he murmurs with that tiniest bit of reproof hovering around the edges of his words as if not wanting to hurt my feelings.

 Take his criticism with a grain of salt.

 "Salt is the single most important ingredient," he once taught me, and repeats constantly. Pinch of salt, teaspoon of salt, shake of salt. The big blue container of fine table salt sits near the stovetop on the tray next to the canister of coarse sea salt, whiter than white, a hint of transparent. Dust liberally with salt, add generous amounts, don't be afraid. If in doubt, add a bit more rather than a bit less. Pinch of sugar, pinch of salt.

 Any cook worth his or her salt knows that a bit of sugar tames the acid and a bit of salt heightens the sweetness.

 Pass the salt, please.

 Table salt, sea salt, fleur de sel. Smoked salt colored pale brown, feminine pink Himalayan salt. Inky black Cleopatra salt the color of ash. Beautiful deep citrine saffron salt. What to cook? What to cook?

 Tears of joy, tears of sadness. Tears, salty like seawater rushing over me, warm and soothing like hot pretzels eaten on the boardwalk or comforting like a pot full of steaming homemade stew, comforting us on a rainy day. The loss of a loved one, the end of a movie, tears purging the pain. Tears, lick the saltiness with the tip of your tongue, the waves pounding, clouds rushing through the sky, foretelling a storm. We dive below the surface and come up choking on a mouthful of salt water like so many tears, the darkness wrapping around us as we struggle for breath, the salt taste lingering as we paddle towards the shore. But we will forget the whole nightmare once back on the beach, once we light the bonfire, the salty taste of roasting sausages bringing the smiles back, washing away the tears.

 Tears of joy, salt mingling with laughter, a baby born, a wedding, kiss the saltwater away, brush salty tears off of a cheek. Cry out in pain; does sweat contain more salt than tears? A finger pressed against a single rivulet as it glides down his back, stopping the course. Lips pressed against his forehead, his cheek, taste the salt, sweat or tears?

 I was raised in a salty-movie-popcorn culture. I slip my dollars through the slot and receive a ticket in return. I push through the glass doors – always heavy glass doors – and take in the atmosphere, the smells of a movie theater lobby, the oddly bright lights. Carpet – there is always a carpet – littered with bits of popcorn and ticket stubs, stray M & M's and dirt. Charming. The noise and bustle of a movie theater lobby as people push through the throngs and rush off to catch their film, afraid to even miss the twenty minutes – is it only twenty minutes it seems like eternity – of advertisement and trailers. 

 There is something about being in a cinema, a movie theater that makes me crave popcorn. The saltier the better. It always came part and parcel with every movie experience of my younger days and a film, deep velvet chairs and popcorn in a tall cardboard box just seem to go together. It can't be homemade, no, it must come from the large, square glass cage with the contraption inside that turns and turns like a carnival carousel and spits out hot popcorn under the dazzling heat lamps. Big metal scoops tucked into a box exchanged for some coins and I can snuggle down into my seat and… no, my self-control is admirable and I don't begin nibbling on my popcorn until the movie starts. What? Popcorn for the advertisements and movie trailers? I eat my way through that box of popcorn, meting it out so it lasts the length of the film, my lips puckering from the salt, fingers licked over and over again, thirst mounting, but every kernel of popcorn must be salty. 

 So think of my shock and consternation upon arriving in France, stepping up to the popcorn counter at my first French film and being offered… sugared popcorn! Sweet not salted! Oooh la la! Non, merci. Le popcorn salé, s'il vous plaît! 

 Huge pretzels the size of my hand, warm and soft and speckled with coarse salt. The tradition is to squirt on a hearty squiggle of bright yellow mustard but doesn't that just make the salt disappear beneath its overwhelming spice and heat. Grains of salt cracking under the teeth, salt bringing flavor and edge to something delicate and mundane.

There are a few things I could eat until I drop (or should I say explode?) and focaccia is one of them. I definitely prefer the original, simple type without topping or anything inside; if it is good,  nothing beats it. I have been experimenting with different kinds of flours and after years of focaccia baking, I must say that this one made with kamut or khorasan wheat flour is the best of the best! Kamut is more expensive than normal flour but I happily pay a bit extra to have its sweet flavour, and if you make it at home, you still won't pay as much as you would have to pay for a boring standard focaccia in a bakery! Read more about it here.


700 g/25 oz kamut flour (you can use normal flour too but then you will have to use more of it as kamut flour absorbs lots of liquid)
250 ml/ 1+ a little more cup milk
250 ml/ 1+ a little more cup water
5 tbs extra-virgin olive oil
1 full tbs honey
1 tsp salt

olive oil and salt emulsion
1/2 tbs salt
2 tbs water
4 tbs extra-virgin olive oil

   Crumble the yeast in small bowl, add a little of the finger warm liquid and dissolve the yeast. Add the rest of the liquid, olive oil, honey and salt and stir well. Add the flour, a little at a time and work it until it is nice and elastic. You may need less or more flour than stated. Cover it with a towel and let it rest for an hour or two, depending on how warm your kitchen is. Let it double in size.

   Turn on the oven (200°C/390°F).

   Divide the dough in two if you plan to make bigger focaccias. Grease two baking sheets or baking pans with olive oil and slop the dough into them. I find it easier to flatten out the dough with oily hands but if you want you can roll them out before you put them in. Let the dough rest a little before you begin because it relaxes and is easier to flatten.

   Mix salt, water and olive oil in a jar and shake until you have an emulsion. Get a brush and brush the salt and oil on top of the dough and then slap it all into the oven until the focaccias are golden, it takes about 20 minutes in my oven.


  1. I love salt and always make sure to store a wide variety in my cupboards. Wonderfully written post, fabulously shot pictures and that recipe is simply wonderful as well as very original.



  2. You know you are preaching to the choir, talking to me about the importance of salt, JP. I feel a bond forming between the two of us (please tell him I said so)! =) Ilva, that salty emulsion is genius. I'm stealing it, just so you know!

  3. Thank you for your beautiful blog on salt, so alive and real. Thank you Michael Olivier for sharing. Would love you to taste Oryx Desert Salt - the MOST delicious salt on popcorn! Yes I take some with me to the movies when I go to put onto my popcorn! It is from the remote Kalahari Desert in South AFrica. It has a very full flavor and gentle because of all the trace elements & minerals. I am coming to present my product at Sial Paris in October if you know anyone coming I could give them some for you? If you would like to be in touch -, warm regards Samantha

  4. Loved reading and marvelling at the photos in your post. Jamie and Ilva - love your work. Love the look of this focaccia, too. Funny, makes me think of my Dad when he visits us from Scotland. He slathers lashings of salted butter on the most butteriest of croissants - instead of me scoffing at him, your post has made me think it was to cut down the sugar level, really. Now I'll just take it with a pinch of salt, as you say. ;-)

  5. I got hooked on an Italian herbed salt, Sale Alle Erbe delle Marlunghe that I purchase at PastaWorks in Portland, OR, although it's available on line. It's a finishing salt with fresh rosemary, fresh garlic, fresh sage and black pepper. Salt is so sophisticated and varied today that it's hard know exactly what to use. Thanks for a great post.

  6. The German side of my family comes from a small town famous for centuries for their salt mine. Whenever I use salt in cooking I feel connected to that heritage and the many generations who lived near or worked in that mine.

    Thanks for this post!

  7. I do like well seasoned food but I've never been a saltaholic. I'm the one who buys salted nuts and puts them in a strainer and shakes the excess salt off. Maybe there's something wrong with me. If so, I blame my mother.