For several years I have had the desire to host a salt-tasting party, I simply lacked the impetus. Until now. You see, I’ve always felt the salty soiree should have serendipitous timing all around, and that wasn’t possible in days gone by. For me, everything had to be essential, perfect, balanced. The food, the guests, the salts, the level of engagement- the whole shebang. When I finally decided a few months ago that the signs were looking auspicious to host the party, it was a right nice feeling. Right nice indeed, because I’ve been stewing over the concept for so long, there really wasn’t much to settle on. Except for incorporating some new obsessions in terms of food (can you say sous vide?) and making sure the guest list didn’t go entirely jabberwocky with too many tasters and not enough salt, all the pre-planning was a cinch.
I planned a from-scratch menu deliberately devoid of salt to encourage tasting and pairing. Notables included sous vide custard duck eggs, sliced heirloom tomatoes, no-knead baguettes by Patrick aka best breadbaker in the world, homemade cottage cheese, homemade burrata, a slew of Italian cheeses including a three-milk Robiola and Bra Tenero, jicama, fava beans and honey, sous vide potatoes and beets, and edamame. Whew, if that wasn’t a salt-less mouthful I don’t know what would be. I did not forget the dessert category, which consisted of maple caramels, chocolate pavé and triple chocolate truffle tart by Patrick, and four types of ice cream: rhubarb crème fraiche, coffee hazelnut, quadruple chocolate and goat yoghurt maple.
Since many members of the Seattle fooderati scene showed for the 70+ person party, there were countless other notable culinary creations from the likes of Michael Natkin, the man behind Herbivoracious, Jenny Richards of Purplehousedirt, Lorna Yee from The Cookbook Chronicles, Marc Schermerhorn of the infamous @marcseattle twitter feed, Keren Brown aka Frantic Foodie, and many more. The lovely and talented Jeanne Sauvage of Fourchickens, brought me a carton of homegrown eggs that I’ve been coddling as though they were babies; I want chickens and ducks so badly I can taste them, but that’s a story for another time.
For the tasting itself, I lined my dining table with over 60 empty vessels and assigned each one a corresponding number. We created a master list on the Ipad that contained each number, then, when attendees brought salt, they simply chose a vessel, told us the number, and we catalogued each salt into the secret master list. This way the tasting was truly blind. I raided my own global collection of salt and filled roughly twenty of the vessels, and once all the guests had proffered their hand-selected salts, we had 63 samples. I established four categories for the tasting: Best Overall Tasting Salt, Best Blended Salt, Best Pairing-Savory, and Best Pairing-Sweet. My graphic designer neighbor Cyndy created ballots so folks could cast their votes, and I’ve just tallied the results, which are molto interessante indeed.
Before I get to that I want to mention some of the notable salts on display that evening, representing six continents. Janna Wemmer from Secret Stash Salts brought a dizzying array of her expertly-blended salts, including bloody mary salt, smoked chipotle, and lavender rosemary to name a few. She is a locally-focused artisan producer of the finest blended salt available in the Pacific Northwest, and her salts should be included in any representational goodie bag of local products. Local foodie-about-town Traca Savadogo was able to get Mark and Marjorie Fuller of famed restaurant Spring Hill to donate some of Mark’s ancestral Hawaiian red clay sea salt, aged 25 years, which was one I made sure to sneak a reserve of for later use. Apparently the aging process sweetens the deal, and I mean that in a literal sense. The kind folks over at Marx Foods heard about the tasting and donated some perfectly structured Portugese Flor de Sal for our tasting pleasure. I’ve been finishing with this one for a few weeks and am very happy with the crystal structure and depth of character.
Every party is bound to have one jester, and this soiree was not immune. Our non-food-obsessed neighbor thought it would be quite funny to cart in a salt-lick, which he did with much pride to much snickering. We had to give it a fair tasting, so we chipped some off the old block and put it in a vessel, much to the chagrin of the poor folks who tasted it. Oddly, it did receive one vote; some kind soul nominated it in the savory pairing category for its complementary taste with radishes. Many of the salts travelled here from around the globe, but only a few did so expressly to be tasted at the party. One such salt was a Waddenzout brought all the way from Amsterdam by Robert and Patrick. I sure hope that one didn’t have any extra Amsterdam-additives in it, if you know what I mean. Another well-travelled salt came from my amazing friend Emily (Happy Birthday, Baby) who sent over some Korean Bamboo salt from Ulsan, where she is teaching for the year. Lily and Rodney brought forth a slew of salts from Vancouver BC made by Edible Canada. Of the twenty or so salts I personally contributed, besides my homemade salt, many of them came from the Portland-based salt boutique The Meadow. If you think of the most esoteric salt in all the lands and are scratching your head as to where to find it, chances are you’ll find it at The Meadow, which is my go-to salt destination, both online and in the flesh.
Alright, enough of me waxing lyrical about one of the greatest substances on earth- let’s see the results. The winner in the best overall finishing salt category is the timeless classic, Maldon Sea Salt. It’s crystal structure alone is a thing of marvel; I really believe this salt should be one of the wonders of the world because it comes in the form of little dissolving pyramids. I love other salts equally for different things, but I am not surprised that Maldon unanimously won the grand prize. There were four salts tied for second place in this category: Trapani Sea Salt, my own sea salt, Secret Stash Salt’s Lavendar Rosemary, and Pangasinan Star.
The winner of best blended salt goes to Black Truffle Sea Salt. A very close second goes to Secret Stash Salt’s Lavender Rosemary Salt. Tied for third place here are Evergreen Edible Salt and Wreck Beach Edible Salt. Best Pairing-Sweet has three salts tied for first place. They are: Murray River Pink Salt, Maldon Sea Salt, and Tahitian Vanilla Salt, all being paired with caramels. In fact, caramels were the favored vehicle with which to sweetly taste salt. The trickiest category was Best Pairing-Savory. I think it’s because there was so much food it was difficult to get consistency. Five salts tied for first place in this category. They are: The Drive Edible on heirloom tomatoes, Tahitian Vanilla on Eggs (maybe these voters had a few glasses of wine?), Sale alle Erbe delle Mar Lunghe (salt with herbs from the long sea) on Patrick’s bread, Haleakala Ruby on heirloom tomatoes, and Murray River on mozzarella and edamame.
Alright, this was a bloody long-winded post, so I’m going to wrap it up. It is my goal to showcase the winners in all categories and do some refined tasting with them in a more controlled environment. I’d like to perfect some pairings and suss out which qualities about each of the winning salts made it memorable for tasters. Expect to see more salt in this space soon, but then, you probably already knew that. Have a salt-sational day!
PS- special thanks to Lisa Page Ramey for providing some of the mid-party action shots; there was a lot going on and our camera languished in the corner for much of the evening.