The Fifth Element

By Malu Lambert

 Photography & Styling C&D Heierli • Recipes Diane Heierli

“I have 65 different kinds from around the world,” says chef Craig Cormack over his shoulder. “Come look.” He’s leading me up a narrow, wooden staircase to the attic of Sofia’s restaurant on Morgenster Estate in Somerset West. Set against the far wall by a single, centred window is a bookshelf. But instead of novels, it’s lined with bags, jars and boxes of multi-hued salts.

Like a little boy under a Christmas tree, Craig excitedly shows me his salty treasures. “Isn’t it beautiful?” he asks holding a handful of blue and white crystals to the light of the window. “And look at this.” He points to a bag filled with pitch-black triangles.

“Use your hands,” he’s saying to me. “Bacteria can’t live on salt. Touch, taste, explore.” With that, he’s off back down the creaking stairs. Tonight I’m here to experience one of his quarterly wine-and-salt evenings. I run my eyes over the shelf. There’s mud salt that extracts its flavours from volcanic ashes, large sea salt crystals, sedimentary rock salt, pan salt, and more. I taste smoked salt, tangy Tabasco salt, and interesting, eggy sulphur salt.

Craig has been collecting, experimenting and studying unrefined salt for the last five years, a passion inspired by Salt: A World History, by Mark Kurlansky. He’s now selling the salt he collects under the name Amoleh, meaning luxurious. Craig says the name represents a time (500 BC) when salt was literally worth its weight in gold. 

Feeling thoroughly salted, we make our way to the outside patio. Overlooking the vineyards, we sip on a pink aperitif, its rim dusted in salt—a play on a Martini Rosso, made with the estate’s rosé wine, Morgenster Caruso. We watch the sky take on an equivalent shade.

The five-course meal we’re about to tuck into is based on recipes sourced from the aforementioned book, going back as far as 2 000 years. “I have to adjust the salt levels,” says Craig, when quizzed about it. “If I made them to spec, they would taste terrible.”

Milling about in the restaurant’s front room, guests munch on quirky canapés. My favourite of these is popcorn rolled in butter, parsley and sulphur salt—truly an acquired taste. You’ll either love it or hate it.

The dinner kicks off with a tutored tasting of six salts. Globally, gourmet salts are a hot trend. In Europe, it’s not unusual to have different types in your kitchen cupboard, and in America, some restaurants have ‘selmeliers’ to advise diners on which salt to choose for which dish. Here in South Africa, our salt palate is expanding. Oryx Desert Salt for one, found in the Kalahari Desert and harvested from a point where three underground streams converge into a brine lake. The liquid is then pumped up and sun-dried into salt crystals. Top South African chef, Margot Janse, of Le Quartier Français in Franschhoek, says it’s the only salt she uses. “It really has a fantastic flavour,” she says. “It has much lower sodium levels than other salt. In comparative tastings, the difference is immediately noticeable. And it fits in with my philosophy: to close borders, to remain local.”

Founder of Oryx Desert Salt, Samantha Skyring, is on a mission: “Our production is sustainable,” she says. “I want the big companies to use our salt. It’s not only good for you and for the planet; salt is an essential part of the diet of humans and animals. Without it we would die.” Samantha isn’t exaggerating. All of our bodily fluids contain salt. It’s in our blood, sweat and tears, but it’s not something we can produce naturally. Humans need at least 10mg of salt in their bodies to survive, although these days, the average person has more like 25mg, owing to eating habits.

Khoisan Sea Salt is also making waves in the industry. Found in Velddrif on the West Coast, brine is pumped from an underground sea lake. This is Craig’s favourite day-to-day salt. “The Khoisan Caviar is a very special product,” he says. “Along the sides of the salt pans, driven by hot winds, the salt is rolled into perfectly formed rock-hard little pearls.”

To start, we rub cured anchovies onto slices of ciabatta. The idea of salting fish has a primordial pedigree. According to Salt: A World History, ancient Egyptians may have been the first to cure fish; salted remnants have been found hanging in tombs dating from before 2000 BC. Along the West Coast, fishermen, too, have been wise to curing fish. An abundance of cured fish can be found in Bokkomlaan in Velddrif, an open air ‘factory’ close to the water’s edge, strung with hundreds of wind-dried, salted haarders, sardines and mackerels, as it has been for the last 150 years.

Turning the dial back a millennium or two to prehistoric China, the next dish is antiquated Asian. Mark Kurlansky writes that the earliest record of salt production in China dates back to 800 BC. It seems the inventors of gunpowder were at the forefront of salt production, too. They boiled sea water in clay pots, excavated dry lake beds, and even siphoned underground brine through bamboo pipes, methods that spread across developing Europe. Back in the 21st century, the dish in front of me is pork belly seasoned with fermented soya and served with pickled vegetables—a foodstuff originating and still prolific to this day in Sichuan.

Craig, in the middle of the dining room, is slicing into a whole fish, which has been baked in a salt crust. “This idea dates back to the 1600s,” he says addressing the room. “The salt locks in moisture.”

The fish is beautiful; with fall-apart texture and delicate flavours, it’s paired with a simple salad of iceberg lettuce and vine tomatoes. Interestingly, the word ‘salad’ owes its etymology to salt. The Romans were said to have salted their greens to counteract the natural bitterness, giving birth to the word salad, meaning salted.

The recipe for the next dish, shrimp gumbo, is attributed to Mary Eliza, wife of Tabasco’s founder, Edmund McIlhenny. Contrary to popular belief, everybody’s favourite hot sauce wasn’t invented in the Mexican town of Tabasco, but on Avery Island in New Orleans. This island sits atop one of the world’s largest salt mines. McIlhenny also grew red peppers, and fermented them with the salt. This crude, capsicum mash was the first form of the Tabasco we have today. 

A stand out dish is dessert; lemongrass-scented honey cake, made with potash (potassium chloride) as a raising agent.

“Almost every place on earth has salt,” Craig tells me. He’s right. This substance, which alchemists call the fifth element—along with earth, wind, fire and air—can be found lining the earth’s crust, bubbling under the ocean bed, forming crusts on dry lake beds, and, of course, on your dining room table. Salt in essence remains constant; dissolve it, and through evaporation it will form crystals again. It’s this perpetual state that has had the human mind so transfixed. The Romans were said to call a man in love salax, in a salted state (the origin of the word salacious). And, just like love, we can’t live without salt.

Sommelier’s Pinch of Salt

Josephine Gutentoft, savvy Swedish sommelier of Bosman’s at the Grande Roche, dispenses a few wise words on pairing wine with salted foods:

Improvement: Salty food can actually make a bad wine more palatable. The wine becomes smoother, rounder. Young and fruity: Younger wines with lots of fruit pair well with salty food. Try a Grenache, a Cabernet Sauvignon or a Pinot Noir.

Balance: In Sweden, we love pickled herrings. It’s a salty food, but it’s also acid; when matching a wine, you need to balance the elements of both. There’s a lot more flavours to take into consideration, they all need to be balanced.

Try these salt recipes:

Chilli-salted Squid

Gravlax with Sour Cream and Dill Sauce

Salt and Spice Rub