In praise of salt

March 19, 2009

saltHave you noticed how, if you cook a meal for folks who like eating but aren’t as obsessed with cooking as One is, that they often rave about the incredible flavours you produce? I realised early in my cooking career that this has sadly little to do with how amazing the fish/snags/bombe alaska really is, and more to do with the fact that the said dish is seasoned. i.e., contains salt (and my second love, pepper).

I am frankly astonished at the number of people who don’t cook with salt at home but always find restaurant food and food at cooky friends’  houses delicious. It’s SALT, people. Delicious, crunchy, subtle or serious – it’s salt that underlines every bit of good cooking I’ve ever done.

I’ve been discussing with my chick pea empress friend Steph (the best all-round cook I know) the whole salt-scare issue. We are both firmly of the view that unless you have high blood pressure – when it really does matter that you cut down on salt – then one should go for one’s life on the salty goodness.

While my beau and I have too many other moral failings to count, we each happen to enjoy constantly perfect blood pressure and so the salt is always in evidence on our table. I asked the Empress, a medical journo in a past life, what the deal is with the blood pressure thing and she told me about new expert moves to scarify us all even further, by changing the guidelines on salt & health, which I would detail here but it’s so boring I can’t be bothered.

A few (actually, over twenty!)  years ago a fellow saltarian at the New York Times articulated my feelings exactly, in this article here. My new best friend, Robert Farrar Capon, “is an Episcopal priest, author and food writer” no less. I wonder if he’s still alive or if all the salt took him to a happy end. Anyway he says:

To cook without salt (save for sound and personal medical reasons), or to undersalt deliberately in the name of dietary chic is to omit from the music of cookery the indispensable bass line over which all other tastes and smells form their harmonies.

I’m with him and the empress. It’s a holy fact: salt is good. If you eat fresh food on the whole, do a bit of exercise and have otherwise good health and great blood pressure, then bring it on, in my view.

One last thing – there is a form of salt facism equally abhorrent to that of the panicked-never-eat-it brigade, and that’s snooty restaurant chefs who refuse to allow salt on tables because they have already seasoned the food to their satisfaction and believe stupid punters should not be allowed to ruin their maestro’s creations with plebian tastebuds . Grrrrrrrr to them. It’s unlikely, but I reckon if I feel like dumping the contents of an entire salt cellar on my poached fish, and topping it with tomato sauce and apricot jam, and I’m paying forty bucks for this plate privilege, then I should be allowed to do so. I reckon this sort of thing is equivalent to watching someone read your novel and then pouncing at the first sign they’re not as Moved by One’s Art as They Should Be, and wrenching the book from their hands because they don’t deserve it. Ridiculous. If a chef (or waiter, for that matter) has such delicate sensibilities perhaps she should just play restaurants at home and not have her creations sullied by the preferences of the great unwashed.

Hmm, I am feeling ranty today!

Anyhoo – off to cook dinner: spaghetti with tomato, anchovies, olives, capers – and glorious, glorious salt.


  1. You are spot on Charlotte…As my Aunty Gracie once unfashionably observed in the rarely seen 1992 documentary “Smells Good Grandma [while tossing a handful of salt into her to-die-for chicken brodo]: “I use plenty of salt otherwise it’s got no TASTE”.

  2. Welcome, Latino! If I recall that doco correctly your Aunty Gracie needed a bucket for her ‘handful’ of salt. And let’s see, how old is she now, and still going strong? My rant didn’t even get to the ol’ Mediterranean diet, rightly lauded by health types everywhere, which is chock full of salty goodness. Those Latino genes will surely see you through, you lucky lunger …

  3. Hi there, finally I have scaled the “Great Firewall” and have landed in howtoshuckanoyster land!!(Yeah)

    I am all for salt on the table in restaurants/and homes…we are using the pink Murray River Salt at the moment. I would add though, that occasionally you see someone reach for and apply salt before they have tasted their food, and this in my opinion is the about as barbaric as it gets!!

    On pepper, at the moment I am obssesed with the Cambodian Kampot peppercorns mixed with fresh lime, a little salt and a drop of sweet reisling vingar, drizzled over fried frogs legs mmmmm!

    By the way Char, I am planning a trip to Copenhagen to research my next big obsession…”Smoerrebroed”… I can’t wait!

    • Ah, the Shanghai Surprise himself … welcome, until they take you away and lock you up for logging in.

      Hmmmm, can anyone tell Hamish is an actual chef, as opposed to the rest of us? And I hear you brother on the salt-before-tasting front – barbaric point taken. Although I’m sure neither you nor I know anyone who would do such an uncivilised thing.

      And … you just taking the piss about the pepper on frogs, or are you actually serious? Either way, it sounds great.

      Not sure about Copenhagen for food though. Any kind of food, even “broed”.

      • If you are looking for things to put on toast…you can go no further than Ida Davidsen and Mia Davidsen’s fantastic book “Open Your Heart to the Danish Open…”

        I will try and get a copy signed for you when I head there!!

        The frog’s legs are not a piss take…they came about when I asked for 20 figs, and something got lost in the translation, and I ended up with 20 frogs….how could I let them go to waste! We push the meat back over the joint so that they are like little frog lolly pops! I will send some photos and a recipe later.
        BTW, that pepper recipe works great with chicken, prawns, squid, fish bits etc etc

  4. hooboy, i cannot wait for those photos. Frog lolly pops. Only in C*ina. (If i use the C word in full will they block me again?)

  5. […] Persian excursion Kitchen capers August 2, 2009 Regular visitors here will know that salt is one of my most particular friends. Hence a very close and loving relation to that friend is the […]

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