Peter Fish travels to one of the centers of a revolution in American cuisine
"Here's a good one," Kasey Bosshardt says, handing me asharp-edged, 20-pound rock. In the headlights of Bosshardt's pickup― the only illumination in this dark, dark tunnel ― therock glitters, salmon pink, crystalline, alluring.
We are 200 feet below the surface of Sevier County, Utah, insideone of the tunnels where Bosshardt mines salt (alongside otheremployees of Redmond Trading Company's RealSalt division). We arealso at one of the centers of a revolution in American cuisine.
Not long ago, salt was salt. You had the blue cylindricalcontainer picturing the little girl and her umbrella, the noveltysalt shaker you bought on vacation, and the cut-glass shaker yougot as a wedding present. All of these were filled with salt. Justsalt.
No more. Now any self-respecting supermarket carries sea salt,kosher salt, salt from Portugal, and salt from France ― allin the sodium chloride family, but mined or harvested and processedor not processed in varying ways.
All this pleases the people at RealSalt, who believe their saltcan compete with the world's best. But it made me worry: Suddenlysalt, like olive oil and salad greens before it, is something wehave to pay attention to.
Think "Utah" and "salt" and you think Great Salt Lake. ButRealSalt comes from 200 miles south and eons earlier than the lake― from a subterranean dome, 155 million years old, composedof 260 million tons of salt. When you tour the Redmond Mine, you'regiven a hard hat and a W-65 Self Rescuer to clamp to your mouth incase 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 stretch60 feet high and 60 feet wide. At the end of a tunnel, we step outof the pickup and Bosshardt shows how the operation works. Firstthey 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, Bosshardtsays. "It's like being in an airplane with a bad cold. Vroom vroomvroom."
After the explosion, Bosshardt and the crew use front-endloaders to haul the chunks of salt out of the mine. Other companieswould process the salt to remove all nonsodium elements, butRealSalt 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 hasexpanded its market to include every state in this country, as wellas places like England and Japan. Still, Peterson admits, they havea ways to go. He speaks enviously of Japan, where "in high-endrestaurants, they'll bring you a platter with an array of differentsalts."
A little overwhelmed by salt facts and burdened by my 20-poundsalt crystal, I get out of the mine and call someone who knowseverything 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, "trulyalters how food tastes. It's a powerful component. The salt of theearth, 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, Itake 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 totaste them. The flavor is elemental, luxurious, earthy; not arevelation, but a pleasant surprise. And I know it will be good onpopcorn.
Info: RealSalt (from $3.59 for a 9-oz.shaker; 800/367-7258)