Most mornings, 49-year outdated Michèle Jean-Bart takes her two canines and bikes to work, biking a few mile over the pancake-flat countryside the place she lives on the Île de Ré, close to La Rochelle on France’s western coast. She arrives at her salt marsh and begins work early, typically round 6 a.m.
In spring, she’ll be prepping the swimming pools of salty water, eradicating as a lot mud as she will and readying them for the summer season harvest. Because the climate grows sunnier, doubtless in June, she’ll start retrieving crystals because the water evaporates every day — or, at the least, if the climate cooperates. An excessive amount of rain, as there was this yr, and the watery puddles can flip brackish and gained’t evaporate effectively.
“Throughout summer season, one aire saunante — that’s the sq. crystallizing pan the place we acquire the salt from — produces round 40kg [about 90 pounds] of coarse salt each two days,” Ms. Jean-Bart mentioned.
Rhétais salt is graded after it’s harvested; most of that processing takes place within the fall. It will likely be sorted between two fundamental grades. The best is fleur de sel, which crystallizes in a flimsy movie on the floor of the water and is greatest used as a seasoning on the desk.
Gros sel is coarser, higher for cooking and types on the underside of the pans, or swimming pools. Additionally it is dried and floor to provide a finer salt that can be utilized in a lot the identical manner. Because the climate will get colder, Ms. Jean-Bart can relaxation; in winter, she’ll concentrate on tending the marshlands so that they don’t grow to be overgrown.
That yearly rhythm is identical one which sauniers have adopted since salt making emerged on the islands within the Center Ages. It was as soon as a thriving business, peaking within the 19th century when greater than 1,000 staff made salt for France’s booming kitchens. Now, Ms. Jean-Bart mentioned, solely 100 or so stay right here. The salt-making business stands in stark distinction with the trendy notion of the Île de Ré. It has emerged as a summer season getaway for bourgeois bohemians from Paris. They take the roughly three-hour prepare experience from the capital on summer season weekends to their cottages right here.
It’s simple to see why: It’s an enthralling nation hideaway, dotted with villages, and the panorama is quilted with bike paths, which individuals use to get across the about 19-mile-long island (the Tour de France included the island on its circuit this yr for the primary time).
The japanese finish of the island, which is closest to the mainland and the bridge that hyperlinks the 2, is most developed. That’s the place the few thousand year-round residents are likely to cluster. The western tip, although, is way fancier, particularly as soon as previous the village of La Couarde-sur-Mer; the cottages there are extra prized for his or her seclusion and exclusivity. Passing La Couarde-sur-Mer can also be when the panorama adjustments, and the acres of salt pans start, stretching throughout the horizon and shimmering within the solar.
The most effective Rhétais salt makers, like Ms. Jean-Bart, are members of the Coopérative des Sauniers, which oversees manufacturing right here and markets the fleur de sel specifically. A lot of them, like her, are from native households; some present practitioners had been drawn right here by the lure of the salt. Nicolas Decis, 50, is one in every of them.
He was born in Normandy and labored on the salt museum right here, Écomusée du Marais Salant, 20 years in the past. He mentioned it was onerous to interrupt into the craft as a result of the producers had been leery of the museum and infrequently visited so he might speak to them. Mr. Decis spent days watching the museum’s movies of them working to attempt to glean ideas for the profession he hoped to observe.
Then the rain got here — 2000 was a nasty yr for the harvest, very similar to 2020. The dreary climate meant that veteran salt makers had time to show him, and inside two years he was establishing his personal salt marsh.
“I turned completely hooked on the salt marshes and salt manufacturing then,” Mr. Decis mentioned. “It’s a very hand-harvested product, renewable and natural, and it’s produced by small enterprises.”
The one main change in approach over the centuries, he mentioned, are the tractors that transport salt from the pans: Up to now, they’d have been wheelbarrows.
“The salt marsh is just not my property; I’m simply at its service,” he mentioned. “Strolling on the identical clay path doing the identical gesture as the blokes within the 13th or 14th centuries is without doubt one of the causes I like my job a lot. One among my favourite souvenirs, or reminiscences, was a night when me and my older son had been harvesting the coarse salt, whereas my second son was engaged on our fleur de sel. All of it makes our salt very particular.”
The most effective place to seek out an assortment of salt from producers like Mr. Decis is on the Cabane des Sauniers, the shop operated by the cooperative in Ars-en-Ré, although each village on the island will promote jars from varied producers.
Salt is commonly offered by the kilogram on the island, with the coarser grade costing a mean of 1.50 euros per kilo (about $2 for two.2 kilos) and fleur de sel at €20 or so for a similar quantity, Ms. Jean-Bart mentioned. The cooperative runs a web based retailer the place the salt is offered in additional pantry-friendly sizes. In New York, the Meadow within the West Village sells two-ounce jars of gros sel for $9 and fleur de sel in 2.5-ounce jars on-line for $18.
Aurélien Massé, the sommelier at Frenchie, a restaurant group in Paris, grew up on the island. Look, above all, for a rosy tinge to the fleur de sel, he suggested, as a result of that’s a particular marker of Rhétais salt.
Although the cooperative’s museum affords a complete explainer of the salt-making course of, think about stopping by a saunier and asking about it immediately; purchase salt straight from one in every of them, too. Mr. Massé recommends Les Salicorniers in Ars-en-Ré, the place the salt can also be offered blended with herbs.
“Purists will let you know that’s not actual salt, however on a barbecue or with fish, it’s cool to have herbs, too,” he mentioned.
Ms. Jean-Bart is extra of a traditionalist and doesn’t add herbs.
She recommends merely placing a hen or some beets in an oven dish, then overlaying it with gross sel Rhétais and baking it for one hour per kilogram.
“I grew up with salt from my island,” she mentioned, “so I apply it to all my recipes.”