Utah mine worth its salt

Peter Fish travels to one of the centers of a revolution in American cuisine

Peter Fish

"Here's a good one," Kasey Bosshardt says, handing me a sharp-edged, 20-pound rock. In the headlights of Bosshardt's pickup ― the only illumination in this dark, dark tunnel ― the rock glitters, salmon pink, crystalline, alluring.

We are 200 feet below the surface of Sevier County, Utah, inside one of the tunnels where Bosshardt mines salt (alongside other employees of Redmond Trading Company's RealSalt division). We are also at one of the centers of a revolution in American cuisine.

Not long ago, salt was salt. You had the blue cylindrical container picturing the little girl and her umbrella, the novelty salt shaker you bought on vacation, and the cut-glass shaker you got as a wedding present. All of these were filled with salt. Just salt.

No more. Now any self-respecting supermarket carries sea salt, kosher salt, salt from Portugal, and salt from France ― all in the sodium chloride family, but mined or harvested and processed or not processed in varying ways.

All this pleases the people at RealSalt, who believe their salt can compete with the world's best. But it made me worry: Suddenly salt, like olive oil and salad greens before it, is something we have to pay attention to.

Think "Utah" and "salt" and you think Great Salt Lake. But RealSalt comes from 200 miles south and eons earlier than the lake ― from a subterranean dome, 155 million years old, composed of 260 million tons of salt. When you tour the Redmond Mine, you're given a hard hat and a W-65 Self Rescuer to clamp to your mouth in case of a fire. "It will filter the air but won't supply oxygen," Bosshardt cautions. You're also given a round metal medallion, numbered, to put in your pocket for easy identification in case … but I decided I didn't want to think about that.

The mine is pitch-black but spacious, with tunnels that stretch 60 feet high and 60 feet wide. At the end of a tunnel, we step out of the pickup and Bosshardt shows how the operation works. First they drill holes into the rock face and push in explosives ― ammonium nitrate. They then insert a fuse into each hole, light it ― and get out fast. You feel the explosion more than hear it, Bosshardt says. "It's like being in an airplane with a bad cold. Vroom vroom vroom."

After the explosion, Bosshardt and the crew use front-end loaders to haul the chunks of salt out of the mine. Other companies would process the salt to remove all nonsodium elements, but RealSalt leaves in the trace minerals. The iron, manganese, potassium, and calcium give the salt "its pretty pink cast," explains RealSalt's director of product development, John Peterson, "and adds to the subtly sweet flavor."

It's heady stuff. Since the salt craze hit, RealSalt has expanded its market to include every state in this country, as well as places like England and Japan. Still, Peterson admits, they have a ways to go. He speaks enviously of Japan, where "in high-end restaurants, they'll bring you a platter with an array of different salts."

A little overwhelmed by salt facts and burdened by my 20-pound salt crystal, I get out of the mine and call someone who knows everything about food: my longtime friend Jerry Anne DiVecchio, Sunset's former Food editor.

"I don't even keep regular table salt around anymore," she says. "I have so many different kinds." Salt, she continues, "truly alters how food tastes. It's a powerful component. The salt of the earth, after all."

So it is decided. Salt is something I have to pay attention to. Back at home in my kitchen, my wife and son watching curiously, I take a knife and run it over my glittering salmon-colored crystal. Salt flakes float down onto the palm of my hand and I raise it to taste them. The flavor is elemental, luxurious, earthy; not a revelation, but a pleasant surprise. And I know it will be good on popcorn.

Info: RealSalt (from $3.59 for a 9-oz. shaker; 800/367-7258)