Sea salt (Recipe: pizza bianca)
In The Saltmen of Tibet, a stunningly beautiful 1997 Swiss documentary, director Ulrike Koch follows the incredible physical and spiritual three-month journey undertaken each year by nomadic tribesmen on the Himalayan plateau to harvest salt from the holy lakes of the Changtang region.
For these nomads, sea salt is still the primary currency, just as it was in China and India more than 2,000 years ago.
Salt has been worth its weight in gold, literally, from the days of the Roman Empire through the European spice trading of the 16th-18th centuries, when salt traded one-to-one for a pound of gold. More recently, in 1930, the British government in India imposed a salt tax, and Mahatma Gandhi and thousands of followers walked 240 miles to the sea (the famous Salt Satyagraha, or Salt March) to collect their own salt and protest the tax.
Made by the evaporation of sea water, sea salt is expensive, its high price fueled by popularity, limited supply, and labor-intensive harvesting methods. For example, fleur de sel, considered the best by many professional chefs (but not by me...read on!), supposedly is formed when winds blow in just the right way over the summer sea off the coast of the village of Guerande, in Brittany. It's hand-harvested by workers who comb off only the top layer, the lightest and purest of the evaporate, in a tradition that has not changed for centuries.
Sea salt is a finishing salt, added after cooking to brighten the flavor of food. Though salt is salt (containing approximately 2400 milligrams of sodium per teaspoon), sea salt has fewer crystals per teaspoon than table salt or kosher salt — and, therefore, less sodium.
Super-trendy sea salt has become the new pepper, and we have the paraphernalia (dedicated salt grinders, pinch pots, salt pigs) to prove it. My pantry houses four sea salts at the moment: Fleur de Sel; Grey salt from Brittany; Hawaiian Red salt; and the winner — by a mile — of our cooking group taste test, Portuguese Flor de Sal. If I had room for only one salt, the Flor de Sal would be my choice. It's beautiful and flavorful, everything you want in a finishing salt.
According to Seattle-based SaltWorks, though, I've only just dipped my toe in the (salt)water, because I haven't tried most of their 14 varieties of artisan sea salts, including Flower of Bali, hand-harvested once a year by evaporating water out of the trunks of palm trees — or Kala Namak (Indian Black Salt), with a smell similar to egg yolks (hmmmm). And there's Jurassic sea salt from Utah; Trapani, from Italy; oh, and Danish Viking-Smoked sea salt ....
By the way, sea salt, diluted in water, is a recommended healing rinse for body piercings. Just thought you'd want to know.
1 pound pizza dough (storebought or homemade, white or whole wheat)
2 Tbsp unbleached all-purpose flour
1-1/2 tsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp chopped fresh thyme leaves, or 1/2 Tbsp minced fresh rosemary
1/2 tsp good quality sea salt
Preheat to 450°F.
Lightly flour your work surface. Roll out the dough to 1/2-inch thick, and place it on a heavy rimmed baking sheet (jelly-roll pan). Using a fork, prick the dough all over. Drizzle on the oil, then sprinkle with thyme or rosemary, and salt. Bake on the middle rack of the oven until golden, about 15 minutes. The pizza may puff up in the oven and look like bit like a lunar landscape. Don't worry; it will taste salty and wonderful.