An interview with nutritional expert Mark Bitterman

Salt is the first ingredient

Salt is just that box of stuff on the bottom supermarket shelf? Far from it, says nutritional expert Mark Bitterman, who considers salt to be a life-giving and life-enhancing ingredient and an engine of innovation.

Audi Magazin: What is so essential about salt?

Mark Bitterman: I like hyperbole. I like to say things like, “There is nothing more important than…” and with salt there’s no shortage of hyperbole. Salt is the first ingredient and the most universal. As soon as we humans came out of the caves and off the savannahs and started to grow our own food, we needed to supplement our diets and the diets of our livestock with salt.

 

Why is that?

Because if you don’t get enough of it, you will die. You can’t thrive in any location without adding salt to your diet. It’s the only food that is a nutritional requirement for every single person in the world. You can go without tomatoes, pork belly or cheese and you’ll be fine, but you can’t do without salt.

 

So salt is something of a universal?

We have such a profound, primal craving for it that every single cuisine in the world uses salt in some way — usually in some very central way. Since the dawn of time, whoever could make salt, did so — each in their own way. There are literally thousands of different salts. So salt acts as a lens on the cuisines of the world. That makes it a truly unique food. In addition, it drives flavor more powerfully than anything else. Fire does an OK job of transforming and concentrating flavors — and spices are always nice — but salt is the king of all flavor enhancers.

 

What makes you say that?

It enhances the flavor of food — any and every food. It makes a cherry taste more like a cherry; it makes meat taste more like meat. And, of course, it has that salty  zing we love so much. So as regards flavor, salt releases aromas in food. But there’s so much more to it than that. In addition to being the most ancient and powerful food, salt is extraordinarily versatile. It is a texturizer — firming the soft, softening the hard. Most importantly, it was the world’s first preservative in the days before refrigeration and is still the most widely used preservative today.

 

What attracted you to salt? Why are you so intrigued by it?

I discovered salt when I was traveling in Europe. I encountered it at a truck stop. Eating a steak, I had a real revelation about this food and its distinctive quality — how each crystal has its own shape, texture, moisture content, mineral composition and color.

 

Someone less enthusiastic might say, it’s just salt. 

That’s exactly what I heard for years and years — and I get it. Even I took salt for granted growing up. Salt was always just a box of stuff on the bottom supermarket shelf — cheap and lacking character and soul. After my revelation, I learned about salt makers, about the places where it’s made. I found that every single salt has a story and some date back thousands and thousands of years. I find that fascinating.

 

Tell us about those stories.

There’s a guy making salt in the north of Spain on a salt farm set up by the Romans, who took over from the Phoenicians! In Japan they’re taking seawater from 3,000 feet below the surface of the ocean and evaporating it in a greenhouse. I know folks who are pulling salt out of a 600 million year old deposit in Pakistan by donkey cart. You think these salts are all the same thing? They’re as alike as turnips and chicken! They are used differently in different foods, are part of different traditions and they all have different stories. That fascinates me.

"You just throw salt on your food and that’s that."

You call yourself a “selmelier,” which is based on the word sommelier. Could you describe a few different salt flavors?

There are a number of different ways to think about how salt tastes. In general, people don’t care about the flavor of salt itself because we don’t eat salt alone. It goes with food. Which is why I’m most intrigued by the interaction of salt, food and the mouth— those three things together. And that’s quite a novel approach. Most people never think about it. You just throw salt on your food and that’s that. But if you look at salt as a function of its crystal structure, mineral and moisture content paired with food, you have something much more complex. I have broken those aspects down to create a system for looking at how salt can be used most effectively in cooking food.

So how does salt taste?

Like I said, the play of salt on food in your mouth is the big thing, but salt does have flavor. A great example is fleur de sel, a French sea salt that contains a lot of moisture and minerals and has a tiny, grainy crystal. It has an oceanic freshness to it. A Mediterranean fleur de sel from the south of France, such as Camargue, is bright and a little bit hot but ultimately rather neutral, while sale dolce (sweet salt) from the Adriatic coast of Italy or Slovenia has a fruity sweetness. My own salt, which I make in Guatemala, is warm, round and mild. Mineral content shifts the flavor of the salt. Another French salt called sel gris (gray salt) is super briny—it’s coarse, chunky, really moist and intensely mineral. If you put it on a juicy steak or roasted root vegetables, it gives this explosive burst of saltiness that beautifully accentuates hearty, rich food such as steak. For me, what’s so exciting is that interplay that’s never been explored before.

 

There are people who say that excessive seasoning with salt is unhealthy.

Salt is life-giving and life-enhancing. I think it has been singled out as a convenient scapegoat to distract attention from bigger threats to health—which is counterproductive. With sugar and refined carbohydrates, there’s a direct connection to obesity, diabetes and all sorts of other things. Cut out sugar and refined carbohydrates and you will see your health improve. But you can’t do that with salt. Reduce your salt intake below what your body needs and bad things happen. The popular pseudo-science that seems to drive public health policy has it backwards. When salt consumption drops too low, the body produces hormones such as angiotensin, which constrict your blood vessels and therefore raise your blood pressure! There’s also a release of aldosterone, which triggers sodium retention. This is the body’s way of protecting itself from your foolishness. Long story short, we are complex machines. Simplistic ideas such as reducing salt may have minimal benefits but fail to take into consideration the broader implications for your body’s systems. It’s a silly and reductive way to think about your health.

 

The locavore movement, which advocates buying seasonal food The locavore movement, which advocates buying seasonal food from your region, is currently very influential. But you sell salt from the Himalayas.

We carry about 200 salts or so in the store. I am a big believer in diversity. For me, it’s not one region versus another. I think any place that produces a salt that will make your food extra special or raise your awareness of the world is a place to celebrate. So I am not a strict locavore at all. I’m all for local when it offers advantages, such as with fresh produce. But there are local products that make no environmental sense at all and are of lower quality. I subscribe to the idea of being mindful rather than reactionary in going for quality.

Most people equate local produce with quality.

Local is great in many ways—it can foster agricultural diversity, a connection to our geography and climate, ties with our neighbors, etc. I’ll spend my money on local produce any day and local meats most of the time. But cheese and olive oil is a different story. Yes, we have incredible options here, but why would I turn my back on France and Spain? If I buy canned tomatoes, they are going to be San Marzanos from Italy. What’s more, it can be more environmentally responsible to shop abroad.

That turns the idea of local produce as the green choice on its head.

Yes. And salt is a case in point. Many salts in the U.S. are made by boiling off seawater using fossil fuels. It can make much more sense to burn a few grams of fuel shipping a kilogram of superb salt across the ocean than burning a gallon of propane gas to make a pound of salt in your hometown. Importing salt from Japan, the Philippines or France is actually being kinder to the planet. You’d be surprised how low fuel consumption per pound of cargo is on a ship. It’s next to nothing. The result is a radically greener product that’s imported from 10,000 miles away.

Does that mean when it comes to food, no innovation is the best innovation?
I’m definitely a believer in keeping things low-tech and old school. I think that’s very important. On the other hand, cherries make the case for innovation. There are no cherry cultivars that are native to the U.S. They were all introduced from Europe back in the day. It was only thanks to the development of new cultivars that we now have wonderful Oregon cherries. So perhaps I should say, I favor thoughtful innovation. And salt has always been a driver of innovation.

 

How is that so?
Take Japan 2,500 years ago—there was no salt anywhere on the islands at the time. One day, some fishermen noticed that the seaweed piled up on the rocks had salt crystals on it. They sprayed some more seawater over it and the crystals grew. By repeating the process, they created a crust of salt on the seaweed. Then they rinsed the crystals off with saltwater and simmered the brine over an open fire. Using hardly any fuel at all, they had produced this fantastic sea salt. And that’s how the Japanese first developed an ecologically and economically sustainable way of making salt. It fostered the development of the whole Japanese culture. Before, no roads existed because there were no goods worth transporting inland—fish would just rot on the way. Suddenly, roads were built that helped stimulate the development of trade networks and all of Japan’s infrastructure. This simple method for naturally harvesting salt using the sun’s rays and some kelp was incredibly ingenious.

 

Your current focus is on chocolate, salt and bitters. What’s next? Do you have any plans?
Before we opened The Meadow, there was no such thing as a salt store. I want to challenge the status quo by calling attention to something fundamental and yet totally overlooked. Right now, most of my energy is going into finding a way to make a high-quality, natural, handmade, eco salt available to everybody. It’s been an elusive goal because it quickly gets expensive and exotic with inconsistent results. But I have finally found a product that lives up to my vision. It’s made by my friends down in Guatemala. This very high-quality, natural salt will be targeted at mainstream America and sold at supermarket prices. And I hope that will change American food culture.
 
 
Interview: Sabine Cole
Fotos: Anna Bauer

 
 
Mark Bitterman is a US-American nutrition expert and entrepreneur. In 2006, he founded the delicatessen store „The Meadow“ in Portland, where amongst salt also chocolate and bitter flavors are sold. One branch office was opened 2010 in New York. Beyond that, Bitterman works as an author and published two multi award winning books on the topic of salt.

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