The New Salt: Worth Its Weight

Is salt the new health food? Or just the latest trend?

The slim, dimpled, white platter held six different varieties of salt: vintage merlot, espresso, chipotle, truffle, Spanish rosemary, and garlic.

Each, applied by the pinch to my bransino Mediterranean fish, popped a new taste sensation at Sea Salt restaurant in Naples.

Sea Salt restaurant's retail salt collection

Call it salt-hopping or salting around, this trend by any name takes the tastebuds out for a spin.

Salt, often considered a culprit in the American diet, has nonetheless grown into its own gourmet food group.

The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island, inNortheast Floridahas grabbed hold of the trend with a salt sommelier, Isabelle Chety, who doles out tastes of everything from citrus-infused salt to Chardonnay salt mixed with wine sediments from barrels at her family’s vineyard in France.

At the resort’s Salt, the Grill restaurant, Chety selects and presents tableside salts to enhance the flavors of each course. 

Closer to home, shops such as Sanibel Olive Oil, Naples Olive Oil Company, and Florida Olive Oil in Naples and Sarasota carry extensive lines of salts from distant seas and lands as well as infused salts.

At Sea Salt, Chef Fabrizio Aielli starts diners out with a trio of imported salts. This varies from among his 130 different types and flavors of salt.

On my most recent visit, the tray contained kala namak from India, sel gris from France, and a smoky red clay salt from Hawaii. Like many of Aielli’s customers, I asked for more, thus the six-salt flight.

Besides sea and land foundation salts from around the world, Aielli features salts he infuses himself into pink Himalayan or Sicilian trapani salt.

“There was no other place I knew of that was doing the salt,” he says in his still thick Venetian accent. “Now it has started elsewhere, and it has become pretty popular.”

He opened Sea Salt in 2009 on Third Street South after the success of his Teatro Goldini restaurant in Washington, DC.

Aielli goes through more than 2,000 pounds of salt each year between the kitchen and retail shop.

The unique concept came to him one night when he was planning his Naples

Salt sampler at Sea Salt restaurant

restaurant.

“I wake up in the morning and said to my wife ‘I want to do something with sea salt,’” he remembers. “We’re close to the water, it makes sense. I did research to learn more and more about salt. Even in Washington we were already using 10 different types of salt.”

One thing he discovered in his research was salt’s healthy, healing properties.

“I know there’s a huge debate about whether salt is good for you,” says the chef. “I found out our body needs salt. Not the bad salt that’s in preserved and canned food. People go to the spa and spend a lot of money for a salt bath. If you cut yourself and put salt on it, it will sting, but it will cure it. Salt kills bacteria.”

Elsewhere in Naples, salt’s healing properties inspired the opening of the Salt Cave spa.

It harnesses the healing power of Himalayan-mined salt crystals to help stimulate blood flow, burn calories, and purge harmful toxins, according to its website. In its cave made from Himalayan salt, guests undergo a relaxation therapy.

“Himalayan pink [has] all 84 minerals and nutrients; Dr. Oz recommends it as your everyday table salt,” said Sheila Davis, who runs the retail salt operation at The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island.

There Chety features 12 varieties of global salts and 13 infused salts, plus seasonal varieties.

Whereas Aielli coaches guests to try varieties of salt to discover how each differently affects the taste of a dish, Chety actually does food and salt pairings.

She pairs, for instance, the chilled avocado and cucumber soup with Mediterranean Black Olive Sea Salt and a beef tartare and poached egg appetizer with Black Truffle Sel Gris.

“Each meat from our wood-burning grill is paired with salts,” says the salt sommelier. “The salt is served in a small container in the plate seat below the pairings.”

With the grilled beef tenderloin, for instance, she pairs horseradish salt; with the veal porterhouse, rosemary salt; with the lamb T-bone, mint salt; and with the chicken breast Adriatic Citrus Salt.

“The Adriatic Citrus Salt is harvested off of the island of Pag, the northernmost salt pan in Croatia,” said Chety. “It formed in the 16th century where an amazing salt magazine lies, consisting of nine rooms made from rock called prosika. The Adriatic salt is blended here with peels of Florida citrus to create this delightful Croatian citrus salt. It will enhance any sea food.”

“She will take a large sheet pan of organic Meyer’s lemons, Uncle Matt’s Organic Oranges, and grapefruits, bake them and grind and mix the zests for a perfect taste,” said Joe Murphy, director of public relations at the Ritz-Carlton.

The infusion process at Sea Salt in Naples takes 40 days, says Chef Aielli. Not all infused salts are created equally, he cautions. Some are artificially flavored.

“They’re like lemon candy,” he expounds. “There’s no lemon in there, it’s just flavoring. If you find infused salt for $2 a jar, it’s probably not good salt.”

At Sea Salt, where blocks of Himalayan pink salt topped with carved salt candle holders decorate wall dividers, a three-ounce jar of salt sells for $8 for most and up to $25 for white truffle or saffron infused varieties.

Year-old Sanibel Olive Oil, which is part of the three-store Florida Olive Oil chain, stocks nearly 30 varieties of salt including Himalayan pink, fleur de sel, alaea Hawaiian, ghost pepper, aged balsamic, coconut and lime, and spicy curry.

“Lots of customers have been asking for more kinds of salt, so I will be adding 10 to 20 different varieties,” said Arnish Patel, owner of all three stores. He buys his salts from a distributor; prices start at $2 for two ounces. “Just like olive oil and balsamic vinegar, it’s a gourmet item.”

The growing popularity goes beyond taste, however. Fans are catching onto its health benefits. “In some cases [it is] 80 percent better for you than the bleached, heated [salt] with non-caking additives added,” said Davis. “And last but certainly not least, they use less.”

IF YOU GO:

Sea Salt, 239-434-7258, www.seasaltnaples.com

Salt Cave, 239-403-9170, www.saltcave.us

Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island, 904-277-1100, http://www.ritzcarlton.com/ameliaisland

Sanibel Olive Oil, 239-579-0151, www.floridaoliveoil.com

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