Le Sel de Guérande
If you’re a chef, it’s a culinary pilgrimage you have to make when you’re in France.
We made an appointment for a tour of the salt fields with a local producer or “paludier” at the Guérande salt collective.
The visitor’s center organizes about 20 tours per day with different themes. We chose the “culinary” tour because it promised snacks throughout the two hour walk. Unfortunately for Mark, it was in French, so I did my best to translate.
The tour begins at the holding ponds that are filled with sea water during each high tide, about every two weeks. Before the water is let into the salt fields, the majority of the organic matter has a chance to settle out. The ponds are dug out by hand every 6 years to remove the sediment.
That’s our guide on the right.
Next, the water flows into the salt fields. Each field in this collective is managed by an individual owner and can produce up to 70 tons of salt per year. It takes about 2 years for a “paludier” to learn the ins and outs of his or her field as each field is configured differently and exposed to different wind patterns.
The salt pools are formed from the natural grey clay that has collected in the marsh over the millennia.
During our tour, the owner of this field came out with his son to check the water levels and move some salt around. The “paludiers” use a series of wooden stoppers to regulate the water flow from one pond to the next.
Once the salt water makes it to the interior pools it is saturated enough to produce salt. Fleur de sel is collected by skimming the surface of the water, usually around 5pm on a warm sunny day. Grey salt is collected from the bottom of the pools and piled on the circular platforms between the pools.
After we learned about the process of harvesting salt, we learned a little bit about the ecology of the salt marshes.
Snack time! Grizzly Adams treated us to some Breton butter cookies and an infusion of wild fennel. We also learned about the history of salt and its importance in Breton culture.
We also tasted a half a dozen native plants like this salicorne. It’s considered a weed here, but I’ve seen it on quite a few fine dining menus!
We also tried a pickle wild green called “pigs ears.” I don’t think the sullen French teens were to into it.
After the tour, we braved the narrow roads between the salt marshes and stopped at the fortified town of Guérande. It looked like most of the other towns built in the same era, but this gate was pretty impressive.
Inside the city walls, most of the shops were just “Briezh crap” and ice cream.
As I was saying in another blog, this serve yourself thing is all over France right now. Here’s a salt store exploring that concept.
This store was filled with candied and dried fruits. I helped myself to a little bag.
At 3.95 Euros per 100 grams, it was expensive but no more than a candy store. Looks like it’s time to make a fruit cake!