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For fine finish, sprinkle and shake on salt without fear

Weekend!Food: In Season
by: DENISE FARWELL, The Meadow on North Mississippi Avenue goes way beyond Morton’s in its salt selection. Above are Vietnamese Pearl, Halen Mon Gold and Andes Mountain Rose.

For some health-watchers, the idea of sprinkling salt on our food sounds like putting ice cream on a doughnut. But used correctly, finishing salts sprinkled over food just before serving are healthier than basic supermarket salt.

Since it's on top, the flavor is stronger than if it is dissolved in the food, so much less is used. Finishing salts don't break down in the same way as salt cooked with the food, so the structure is maintained and, thus, more of its flavor comes through.

The truth is, only about 10 percent of salt consumption is from salt added to food at home. Most nutritionists and consumer food organizations agree that sodium-overloading, which can lead to serious illness, almost always comes from eating processed foods, and adding salt to already salty foods, like canned soups or fast-food french fries, trying to coax a little more flavor out of the snacks.

Fleur de sel, the traditional French finishing salt, has an inconsistent snowflakelike structure and high moisture content that allows smaller crystals to dissolve quickly, while the larger crystals add texture that's assertive.

Rather than making food simply taste saltier, these salts heighten and deepen the flavor of any food, even sweets. Even an avowed nonfoodie will have a hard time denying how much better almost any dish tastes with a few pinches of fleur de sel.

Perhaps your first brush with finish salt was at one of the Pix Pâtisseries (3402 S.E. Division St., 503-232-4407; 3901 N. Williams Ave., 503-282-6539, 3731 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd., 503-236-4760).

The confectioner's addictive caramels spiked with salt crystals make eating dessert that's just plain old sweet lose its luster.

Plenty of local restaurants use fleur de sel on savory foods as well. Fenouil, for example, sprinkles a bit over the lavender brioche that's serves with foie gras.

Fleur de sel originated in Brittany, where it is skimmed from the surface of evaporation ponds, usually in the driest summer heat. As the salt pans dry, the light and delicate top layer is culled to become fleur de sel while the salt that settles to the bottom goes on to make less illustrious sea salts.

Fleur de sel is naturally lower in sodium than processed salt, with a maximum of healthful nutrients like magnesium, potassium, copper, iodine and calcium.

Depending on where it's harvested, and what natural elements are at play, fleur de sel can be chalk white, blushed with rose or an owlish gray. Like the color, the consistency has a range, from slightly coarse to powder.

Sel vs. sal

Finishing salts aren't strictly a French import. Local food writer and salt merchant Jim Dixon swears by the Portuguese version, flor de sal, which he sells in in 8-ounce increments for $8 at the Portland Farmers Market and out of his Activspace office. (For information, see his Web site, www.realgoodfood.com.)

He says his Portuguese flor de sal, neton, has a similar flavor to French styles but a more uniform white color. The warmer weather in Portugal also makes it easier to produce in quantity. Dixon's main reason for importing Portuguese flor de sal to Portland, though, is because of ethical practices.

'I also prefer the Portuguese salt because of the sustainable approach, both in protecting the wetland environment in the Algarve (region of southern Portugal) and providing an equitable profit-sharing program for the workers who hand-harvest the salt.'

When asked about the relationship to salt and sweets, Dixon has no doubts. 'Every dessert needs a little salt. One of my favorites is good dark chocolate dipped in extra-virgin olive oil, then topped with a few crystals of flor de sal.'

Step into the tasting room

Although most gourmet and many grocery stores in Portland sell fleur de sel and its regional counterparts, anyone who's seriously interested in salt should visit Mark Bitterman at his shop, the Meadow (3731 N. Mississippi Ave., 503-288-4633). He guides shoppers through his huge selection of salts alongside flowers, chocolates and wines.

Bitterman easily lapses into sounding poetic, even evangelistic, about salt. His blog, Salt News, begins with the declaration that, 'Gourmet finishing salts are the crystals through which our world can be seen in all its variegated and changing beauty.'

He goes on, 'Putting processed table salt on any dish is the equivalent of driving a car using only second gear.'

At the Meadow, there's a salt tasting room, great samplers of six salts in attractive and airtight silver containers ($16-$18), and a 'cheat sheet' to take home listing salts and what they might best match with - i.e. game, curry, salad or a praline dessert.

Some fleur de sel is treated to enhance its already elevated flavor. For example, Barrique oak-smoked fleur de sel is cold-smoked with oak chips made from wine casks used to age chardonnay.

For a good all-around fleur de sel, the Meadow offers 6.4-ounce glass jars of fleur de sel de Camargue ($12), a dry, light salt that stands up to meats and fish but is delicate enough for eggs and salads.

Barbara Dawson of In Good Taste store and cooking school (231 N.W. 11th Ave., 503-248-2015) also is a big fan of fleur de sel de Camargue. She sells 4.5-ounce containers of it for $10.95. Sales of it are increasing, she says, and Hurley's chef Thomas Hurley often drops in for some.

When asked to name her favorite finishing salt, Dawson echoes the thoughts of many salt fanatics: 'Picking a favorite salt would be like picking a favorite child.'