Salt’s journey to the grinder on your table has a long and storied history behind it that goes far beyond the trip home from the grocer, its ability to preserve food in many ways making it the foundation of all civilizations.
Consider that the Chinese harvested the mineral as early as 6000 BC.
The Romans used it as a form of currency, deriving the word for a legionnaire’s salary - “salarium” - from the Latin word for salt: sal.
During the American Revolution, British Loyalists intercepted shipments in an effort to destroy the Patriots’ food supplies.
Gandhi’s famous “March to Dandi,” a protest of a policy that allowed only the British government to produce or sell salt in India, was a turning point in India’s fight for independence.
Today, Chris McVety and Chef Eric Nittolo are adding a slightly less monumental, but nevertheless tasty chapter to the tale.
McVety’s website, BeyondTheShaker.com, devoted entirely to gourmet salt, offers an unusual selection of natural, unrefined salts, and a unique line of hand-blended flavorings.
McVety loves salt and he wants you to love it, too. “We give the history of salt, of our individual salts, of our blended salts and suggest what to serve them with. That way, you can use them as soon as you get them,” says McVety. If there’s a heaven for salt lovers, his store is it.
In addition to Fleur de Sel – the “caviar’ of salts - McVety offers exotic, naturally-colored gourmet versions like pink Bolivian Rose mined from the Andes, and glossy Hawaiian Black Lava, a blend of sea salt and black lava gathered near the Molokai volcano. He recommends the latter with Eggs Benedict or Caesar salad.
McVety is obsessed with the textures, flavors and salinity levels of his salts, which he packages in Italian perfume jars. He points out that for those restricting their salt intake, “natural, unrefined salts have more flavor, so you use less than with traditional table salt.” He refers to his salts as “varietals” and like a good wine sommelier, recommends pairings with specific dishes.
Himalayan Pink, tinged pink by copper, magnesium and iron goes well with tilapia, broccoli gratin, or salt-crusted red or yellow beets. Cyprus Black Lava’s silvery-grey crystals stand up to salt and pepper shrimp, or a hearty leek and bacon soup. And green-hued Bamboo Jade, a natural sea salt combined with bamboo leaf extract, is best with mild white fish or cold noodles.
McVety got hooked on salt in a cooking class. He recalls “the chef said that salts had different tastes. I disagreed. We did a blind taste test and I was blown away.” He saw that restaurant table salt was different from what chefs used in their kitchens and decided to start a salt company to share and expound on what was quickly becoming an obsession.
Enter Chef Eric Nittolo of The Boat House in Traverse City, Michigan. A friend arranged an introduction, and McVety told Nittolo about wanting to also develop a line of blended salts. Nittolo leapt at the chance to be the new venture’s “Salt Chef.” Says McVety, “I wanted the blends to push the bounds and to play on the flavors you find in food.”
So Nittolo, an analytical chemist armed with culinary and biology degrees, began inventing. He first created “Hot Habanero” with Hawaiian Black Lava and Red Alaea salts, ancho, habanero, mulato and guajillo peppers, and organic carrots and cilantro to give it a southwestern flair.
Nittolo says freeze-dried herbs are the secret to the blended salts. The process subjects ingredients to temperatures from 40 to 80 degrees below zero, which extracts the water without destroying the cellular structure of the plant. “That preserves the flavor,” he explains. The other key is knowing which ingredients to use and when to stop adding them.
“Windy City Celery” is his homage to Chicago hot dogs which are topped with mustard, onion, sweet pickle relish, a dill pickle spear, tomato slices, pickled peppers, a dash of celery salt and sometimes cucumber. Nittolo uses Murray River and kosher flake salts, celery seed, organic mustard seed, organic jalapeno, organic garlic and organic shallot to capture to those flavors. “The entire taste of that dog is in this salt,” he says.
The pair’s “Wet Salts” are salts infused with oils. The oil concentrates the flavor without breaking down the salt. It’s like a garlic paste, a mixture of garlic and large-flaked salt that becomes a paste by repeatedly pressing, pushing and scraping the mixture with the blade of a knife until smooth. The blends, like “Everest Wet” and “Truffle Wet” dissolve easily in a sauce or soup, imparting an intense flavor without any solid chunks to spoil the texture.
Gourmet salts were always the province of foodies. With their encyclopedic website, McVety and Nittolo are bringing them to the masses, one grain at a time.