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Guérande Fleur de Sel: The Salt Harvester

Marie-Thérèse Aumont picks out a black speck from the snowy mountain of fresh salt.

“It’s alien, it shouldn’t be here,” she says crossly. “This entire mound might be contaminated.”

That would be bad news indeed, given the amount of work it takes to harvest a pile of salt here in the Guérande peninsula (pronounced gay-rawnd) in northwestern France’s Loire-Atlantique region.

Each morning, rain or shine, Marie-Thérèse jumps into her car for the five-minute drive down the hill into the salt marsh. Depending on the season, she’ll rake, sift, water, drain, build, prune, clear, dam, or stir, each gesture perfected by generations of salt harvesters who have fine-tuned the art of gleaning these crystals from the sea.

“My grandfather and my uncle were salt harvesters,” she explains. “I left the region to work but it drew me back.” She eventually traded her job in the city for the life of a paludière, or salt harvester, a decision she doesn’t regret.

Salt harvester in the Guerande

Marie-Thérèse demonstrates her art; when she isn’t on the marshes, she is vice-president of the regional salt cooperative

She is one of only 30 or so women among the more than 200 Guérande salt harvesters. “New materials mean equipment is getting lighter, so more women are entering the profession,” Marie-Thérèse tells me.

The 59-year-old skips lightly across the low mud walls that separate the salt ponds from one another, pointing animatedly at the still pools of water. She doesn’t fall off, as I almost do following in her footsteps.

Her days are long, up to 12 hours during the harvest, under the beating sun and amid the buzz of mosquitoes. Yet each season is different and there is no typical day: the weather rules all.

“In winter, it’s all about maintenance, cleaning the canals, removing the sediment and maintaining the vegetation. Then in March we have to get rid of extra water and seaweed, and rebuild the mud walls. Summer is when we harvest and deliver and in autumn things wind down – it’s when we take our vacation.”

Salt pools of the Guerande, France

Aerial view, salt marshes of Guerande

Aerial view of Guerande salt ponds

The salt harvester’s real job is to manage water, a true engineer of the marshes, calculating water quantities and second-guessing the rain.

It all looks simple but asMarie-Thérèse tries to explain I realize how complex an operation this really is: large pools collect water when the tide comes in, eventually releasing the captured water into canals and smaller pools. As water flows from pool to pool, it heats up and evaporates with the sun and wind. Eventually it reaches the smallest pools, the œillets, where it becomes so concentrated salt crystals are formed.

The best of the crystals, the bright white fleur de sel, are the ones that sit on top of the water, with the less sought-after gros sel found below, grey from contact with the mud.

Even salt has a hierarchy.

The Salt of Salts

I’ve been fascinated by the little white crystals ever since I read my first fleur de sel label on the small cardboard tins in my mother’s pantry. Flower of salt. It sounds exotic, almost ethereal. This is salt you sprinkle with your fingers, its crystals too large to pass through any ordinary salt shaker.

It’s not even designed to salt food, but to flavor it. A pinch lifts a steak out of its misery, and turns an asparagus or an artichoke into an adventure. This isn’t salt you dissolve but salt you gently drop onto a lovingly prepared feast, watching it sit, proudly, refusing to melt away. (Except when it’s used to make one of the best salt toffees I’ve ever tasted. Then you can go right ahead and melt.)

The Guérande fleur de sel is special, andMarie-Thérèse dismisses the thought of Mediterranean salt with a wave of her hand.

“That’s all machine-picked with bulldozers, and then washed,” she tells me. “In Guérande it is done by hand, by tradition, without additives.” Experts can taste the difference, and this particular salt is so popular it has engendered copycats; a special label of origin in 2017 should help curtail any contraband.

Sorting fleur de sel in Guerande

Fleur de sel being sorted by hand to remove even the tiniest imperfections – a painstaking job

Fleur de sel de Guerande

This is what should be in every connoisseur’s pantry (Photo Christian Mertes via Wikimedia Commons)

A Brief Salty History

These days salt is inexpensive and easy to find, innocuous really, so it’s easy to forget how prized it once was.

“Salt is the only rock directly consumed by man,” says culinary author Margaret Visser, in her book Much Depends on Dinner. “It has fascinated man for thousands of years not only as a substance he prized and was willing to labour to obtain, but  also as a generator of poetic and of mythic meaning. The contradictions it embodies only intensify its power and its links with experience of the sacred.”

Salt was widely used by the Ancient Chinese and Egyptians but its existence goes beyond recorded history, into prehistory.

There are apparently more than 14,000 documented uses for salt.

It is used as a preservative (for food – and for Egyptian mummies), for flavor (not too much these days because of high blood pressure fears), as an essential mineral for people and animals, as money, as medicine, as a sign of friendship and hospitality, as part of religious rituals (to symbolize purity), in industry, or for those of us who have slipped and tripped in the winter cold, on the roads in winter. Salt is even believed to have magical properties and protect people from the evil eye (don’t you sprinkle salt over your shoulder when you spill it?). Nations gone to war over these little tasty grains.

Salt drying in Brittany

A mound of fleur de sel drying in the sun in the village of Kervalet (Photo Sigoise via Wikimedia Commons)

Salt, known to high-school chemistry students as sodium chloride, has been called ‘white gold’ and was enormously valuable throughout history.

In France, the gabelle was an unpopular salt tax that sparked smuggling and rebellion and was even used as punishment.

According to Mark Kurlansky, author of Salt: A World History, “A 1670 revision of the criminal code found yet another use for salt in France. To enforce the law against suicide, it was ordered that the bodies of people who took their own lives be salted, brought before a judge, and sentenced to public display.”

There was just no getting away from salt.

Facts about salt

When Marie-Thérèse eventually retires, her work won’t go to waste.

“More and more young people are becoming salt harvesters, and out of the ten or so that apply for training each year, all but two stay on.” It’s hard to imagine her retiring, with her short dark hair and sporty sandals, a smile never far from the corners of her mouth.

What’s less clear is whether she is part of the old guard or the new wave. As tradition slowly edges out of modern life and into history books, France fights on the one hand to modernize and on the other, to preserve its old way of doing things – especially when it comes to food.

It isn’t an easy life, but it’s a simple one, with each season’s fresh task neatly laid out.

When I arrive at the marsh it is late on a summer afternoon, when the air is dry and sleek and almost smells of violets. The fleur de sel has been raked for the week and sits in a mound by the water’s edge, awaiting its fate from the lab results. They will determine the future of that snowy mound of sparkling rock salt which, to my naked and inexperienced eye, looks rather acceptable, but that Marie-Thérèse is ready to discard if it is anything less than utterly perfect.

No matter, it’s all worth it.

“Don’t ask me to find anything wrong with this,” she clucks. “I’ve been harvesting salt since 1980 and I love it.”

Things every Woman on the Road should know

  • You can find out more about Guérande salt at Terre de Sel, which runs visits to the marshes and serves as the cooperative for local salt harvesters.
  • If you’re in the region you must stop by the medieval fortified village of Guérande, entirely surrounded by ramparts, one of the few French towns with a full set of walls. If you do, you’ll have to stop at the Roc Maria Creperie for a local galette (salted crepe) made with the local ‘black wheat’. I tried the Coquille Saint-Jacques with mushroom and cream and although it was king-sized, I would gladly have had another.
  • Getting to Guérande is easy from the northern city of Nantes, by train or bus. Contact the Guérande tourist office to find out about bicycle tours and other ways of getting around if you don’t have a car.

Aerial photos courtesy Terre de Sel.

Thanks to Nantes Tourisme, Le Voyage a Nantes and the Tourist Office of La Baule and Guérande for organizing this visit and hosting Women on the Road. Opinions are my own: I’m opinionated and plan to stay that way.

{ 25 comments… add one }
  • De'Jav October 13, 2014, 3:22 pm

    Well written article. Seems like a hard job from how you describe in the beginning lets call it a Salt Engineer.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak October 13, 2014, 4:06 pm

      Exactly! I’m sure she’d love it!

  • Paula October 13, 2014, 5:05 pm

    This is so cool! What awesome pictures. I love learning something new. : )

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak October 13, 2014, 5:08 pm

      Thanks Paula – it was new to me too – at least the harvesting.

  • Sheila Archer October 13, 2014, 7:06 pm

    Absolutely fascinating article. Thank you so much.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak October 13, 2014, 7:07 pm

      Great that you like it, Sheila! I never know how much background, history etc to put into a piece…

  • Amanda October 13, 2014, 8:22 pm

    So interesting knowing more on how that salt makes it to my pantry. Great article!

  • Stephanie @ Plain Chicken October 13, 2014, 10:46 pm

    This was SO interesting! Thanks for sharing!!

  • Andi October 14, 2014, 4:32 am

    I was there two years ago and loved it. Brought home lots of salt that my hubby cooks with, I love listening to the stories told by locals about harvesting the salt!

  • Rebecca {foodie with family} October 16, 2014, 9:23 pm

    I am an unapologetic salt addict and salt snob. It is so cool for me to be able to see one of my favourite salts being harvested. Guerande Fleur de Sel is magnificent and this is so informative!! Thank you!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak October 16, 2014, 9:30 pm

      I just grilled an entrecote this evening – sprinkled a bit of Guerande fleur de sel on my grill and that’s it – oh yes, a bit of sauce bearnaise to go with it afterwards 🙂

  • Paula October 22, 2014, 12:00 am

    This is a terrific story with helpful photos. A very intriguing job and cooking tool.
    Thanks for sharing this.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak October 22, 2014, 12:03 am

      Isn’t it though! I had no idea I would be writing about this at all but once I visited the salt marshes I was utterly intrigued.

  • Elaine October 24, 2014, 11:46 pm

    Never knew so much work went into making sea salt. I’ll have to give this premium brand a try!

  • Margo Millure October 28, 2014, 7:00 pm

    Love this, Leyla! I visited Guerande a few years ago and loved it. Ever since I keep a supply of Fleur de sel on the table. It is an amazing finishing salt. I notice now that often when the subject comes up around chefs and they’re talking about salt – this is the one that they too always use.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak October 28, 2014, 7:20 pm

      What really struck me was the painstaking nature of the entire process – how the salt farmers have to sift through literally each grain of salt by hand to ferret out the impurities – unbelievable patience and art. I understand why they look down their noses at those who do use machines to do the sorting… and it does taste so good!

  • Laura November 15, 2014, 5:23 am

    This is absolutely awesome and just quirky enough to be really interesting. Never heard of salt harvesting, but I would love to see that someday.

  • Dan November 15, 2014, 3:32 pm

    I will never look at salt the same way again! Who knew it was so much work. Thanks for the great article 🙂

  • Cassie Kifer November 17, 2014, 8:08 pm

    This is a lovely story and wonderful photos. I didn’t realize how much work goes into this tradition! The landscape of salt ponds fascinates me. I live in Bay Area and I remember a time when flying into SFO you could see the large, colorful organic shapes of the evaporation ponds on the San Francisco Bay. I also recently saw the traditional salt pools on Gozo, Malta, but I didn’t meet any of the workers who have tended the tradition.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak November 17, 2014, 8:11 pm

      Thanks Cassie – I’m equally taken with the shapes of the salt ponds. I had no idea while I was on the ground – only when I saw these aerial photos did I understand what really went on down thee…

  • alison abbott January 23, 2015, 6:10 pm

    Those aerial views of the salt ponds drew me in, they look like a painter’s palette. Your comprehensive post has given me everything i’ve ever wanted to know about salt-and more! Such a complicated process and what a variety of tastes are available to us these days.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak January 23, 2015, 11:18 pm

      Alison, I don’t know if you ever read the book Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky… that’s what got my interested sharpened so when this opportunity came up I couldn’t miss it!

  • Kyongjin Kim Lecomte November 4, 2016, 10:25 pm

    Hi, thank you for this website. I’m Jin and visited the Terre de sel in Guerand 2 months ago.
    May I ask? Do you wear shoes for the work? Some harvest in the salt farm does not in the pictures on Google’s images.

    Fleur de sel is very impressive and I’m preparing my presentation and the topic is “Fleur de sel de Guerand”. I will explain about the best salt to my classmates. I’m a Korean and attending ESL class in NYC. I look forward to hearing from you as soon as possible. Thank you! =)

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak November 4, 2016, 10:36 pm

      As far as I remember the salt harvesters were wearing shoes – rubber or plastic. However they don’t walk in the water but on the small mud bridges that link the flats so they don’t necessarily get their feet wet.

      • Kyongjin Kim Lecomte November 5, 2016, 6:10 pm

        Thank you for your response. Your answer helps me =) By the way, my husband and I have been enjoying the Fleur de sel which my mother is law offered to me for my dishes. To research about the salt is really good to know and I want my friends to know and take it. Thank you for all the sea salt harvesters of Guerande, include you, Marie-Thérèse.

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