If you visit certain coastal regions of France in the summer months, you might see local farmers engrossed in the harvest—except these farmers aren’t in the fields picking wheat or grapes, they are carefully raking tools reminiscent of garden hoes across the surface of man-made ponds, gathering what we know as fleur de sel—that rather expensive, pretty gray sea salt.
But why exactly is it so expensive? As it turns out, there are actually good reasons for it.
Most salt comes from sources that offer large quantities of supply, like underground deposits or the current ocean. Fleur de sel, however, is much harder to come by. It technically comes from the current ocean, but it is carefully cultivated through a series of canals and ponds designed to produce the desired end result. These ponds fill with seawater when the tide is highest (in some spots, they only fill during the new and full moon). Once full, the water slowly flows from pond to pond, evaporating and becoming saltier at each pool, until it reaches the final one, where it will be harvested. At the bottom of the pond, sitting on top of the clay, a salt layer that will be sold as coarse gray sea salt forms, and at the very top of the pond, fleur de sel.
Fleur de sel is French for “salt flower,” an apt description of this fragile form of salt crystal that can be destroyed by something as common as wind. It looks like a thin layer of icy snowflakes on the water’s surface, and it has to be harvested immediately, with great care, and by hand. The farmers use skimmers to remove the salt, similar to the way you might skim the top of a pool to remove debris. Then they drain it and collect it in wheelbarrows. After a full afternoon of work, they might get a few wheelbarrows’ worth of the crystals, providing the weather cooperates. Speaking of weather, should a storm roll in, the humidity fluctuate too much, the wind kick up, or some other unfortunate turn of luck occur, the fleur de sel will not form, and the salt farmers will have to hope for better luck tomorrow.
Knowing where fleur de sel comes from makes understanding its cost simple. It’s rare and labor-intensive to produce. Its formation depends on uncontrollable factors like weather and the tide, and the season in which it can be done is brief. On top of that, there are relatively few salt farmers who produce it, and all of them have rather small operations. When you think of it, it’s a wonder it’s widely available.
Is it worth paying the price for fleur de sel? We suppose that depends on who you are. Chefs and connoisseurs prize it for its delicate flavor and texture (and maybe a little bit for its exclusive status?), and some go so far as to have tasting parties where fleur de sel takes center stage. If you’re not someone who is going to give your food that much attention, it may not be the best choice for you. We like to think of fleur de sel like truffle oil: a high-end product that is excellent as a finishing touch for special dishes, but not something you’d use every day. If you love cooking, it has its place in your spice cabinet—right next to your Real Salt.