Rare flowers of salt

Too windy? No flor de sal. Heavy rains? No flor de sal. Morning or early afternoon? No flor de sal. Too humid? No flor the sal. And if finally all the conditions are right and the thin layer of ‘coalho’ does form, it must be collected the same day or else it loses its texture, sinks and becomes normal coarse sea salt… Enjoy the Algarve learns about salt harvesting at the Salinas do Grelha in the Ria Formosa.

See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine September 2017


With all those conditions, it’s logical that only about 3% of all salt harvested at the Salinas do Grelha in Bela Mandil (west of Olhão) is flor de sal. Salt production completely depends on the weather; August 2015, for example, was extremely windy and humid, which resulted in hardly any of what the French call fleur de sel. Flor the sal is the thin layer (less than 1cm) of salt that forms on the surface of the water in the salt pans; the first salt creation. It’s also called ‘coalho’, the cream of the milk, in Portuguese. In order for it to form, the water needs to be warm, so it usually doesn’t happen until 4pm. Once it begins to crystallise, it appears on the water shaped like a flower. Akin to lilies in a pond, the crystals start small and then grow together, covering the water surface. Usually, flor de sal gets harvested from May to September, but if the weather isn’t good enough, it doesn’t start until June.



It’s worth the wait though, because unlike normal table salt, flor de sal doesn’t taste harsh or bitter. Instead, it strengthens the flavour of the food you sprinkle it on. Unlike traditional sea salt, it isn’t coarse, but made up of very fine crystals, small enough to melt in your month. It’s also a bit humid and just like snow, its flakes leave your hands slightly wet after touching it. What makes it so special, though, is the composition. Between 94 and 97% of it is NaCl; the rest is minerals. (Compare this with coarse sea salt which has a natriumchloride concentration of around 98%). Because of its sea water origins, salt contains over 80 minerals, like magnesium, calcium and iodine.

“These minerals all stay in the salt,” explains João Pedro (43, pictured above) of Salinas do Grelha. “That’s because we don’t add any chemicals to our salt to clean it. We also don’t use any big machines when we harvest it. Instead, everything is done manually, with hand nets and shovels. It wouldn’t be possible to get the same quality with machines, as they’d pollute it.” João is sure of it: “This production method gives the best results.” The sizes of the individual salt ponds of Salinas do Grelha at Bela Mandil are between 40 and 50m², small enough for a human with a rake to work in. Together, the 9.5 hectares of salinas yearly produce about 800 tonnes of Portuguese sea salt.



Although salt production only happens in the summer months, when 20 people are working in the salt pans, preparing for it takes most of the rest of the year. From November to March, everything is flooded in the salinas. Water from the Atlantic Ocean is led to the reservoir and distributed to the salt pans via a system of canals. The sea water only goes to the first tank, the reservatório. Through a one way tap system, it flows to the other basins because of gravity. During this process, water is evaporating and getting saltier in each tank. In normal sea water, there’s about 30 grams of salt per litre of water. When it gets to the salt ponds, also called crystallisers, this content has increased to around 300 grams of salt per litre, about the same as the water in the Dead Sea.



In April, it’s time to clean these 300 crystallisers and get rid of the mud that has gathered on the bottom during the winter. An important step in the process, seeing as the salt sets at the bottom of the ponds and gets harvested with a rake. Salt begins to sediment in May and it takes at least a month for a layer of about 20cm to form, so usually the coarse salt harvest doesn’t start until July. As the water continually evaporates, more sea water needs to be added to prevent the ponds from drying up. Checking the water level every single day and adding more when necessary is one of the most important things in salt harvesting. No water, no flor de sal, no coarse salt, nothing.


Coarse salt is harvested two to three times per season. It’s as hard as a stone, so it has to be broken and gathered with rakes. The salt heaps are left to dry for at least seven days before they’re packed into big bags. The only time a machine is needed during the entire process, is to transport the giant quantities of salt. Some of it gets exported to other countries, but the majority stays here in Portugal.



The Algarve is a natural salt production place. As it was needed to preserve food, salt pans were located not only near the sea, but also close to important fishing cities such as Castro Marim, Tavira and Faro. The oldest salinas in the Algarve are those of Castro Marim, where salt was already produced 5,000 years ago. The principle has remained the same: small tanks to evaporate the water, which gets saltier in every tank. Also the materials used in the harvesting, wood and canes, are the same as in the old days. “It’s was my great-grandfather who bought the salinas. My grandfather expanded it and I took it on in 1999,” says João. “I started out of curiosity, but I soon rekindled my passion for salt harvesting and slowly fell in love with it.” So with mountains of the stuff on their doorstep, does he ever buy table salt in the supermarket? He’s horrified at the suggestion. “Never!” is the answer. “But when boiling water to cook pasta, I don’t put flor de sal in as it’s too rare,” reveals João’s wife Veronika Rosova (35, pictured above).



Because traditional sea salt harvesting means a lot of work, there are also industrial salinas. In these salt pans, the process of continually adding sea water which evaporates is the same, it only happens on a bigger scale. The difference, however, lies in the harvesting. Diggers collect the salt and, no matter how careful their drivers are, also collect mud along the way. Therefore, salt that’s harvested the industrial way needs to be cleaned. And during this cleaning, the first thing that dissolves is the magnesium, followed by almost all of the other minerals. “It’s still called ‘sea salt’, but in principle it’s the same as regular table salt. It consists of 99% NaCl, with the remaining 1% being impurities and anti-agglomerants to prevent lumps from forming,” explains Veronika. So how to ensure you buy the good stuff? “Look for the words traditional sea salt on the packaging. This ‘traditional’ applies to the way it’s harvested (by hand) and what happens to the salt after harvesting (nothing apart from drying and packing).”



With flor de sal shining in the water and workers raking up the white crystals, the Salinas do Grelha seem as traditional as possible. It’s a very natural environment, with flamingos looking for food in the shallow tanks. They get their pink colour from eating the little red artemia, which can be found in the bigger tanks, but not in the actual salt ponds, as nets in front of the crystallisers avoid them getting in. “Salt harvesting is one of the few manmade activities that also helps the local fauna. Birds, small shrimps, and other wildlife are all indicators of the cleanliness and purity of the water,” comments João. But what if the birds poo in the salt? “Well, then we just don’t gather that bit,” is the logical answer. “Also,” Veronika adds, “Birds tend to stay away from the ponds. Only towards the end of the season, seagulls come and enter the basins.”



Veronika got into salt harvesting in 2011. Originally from Czech Republic, her favourite way to use salt is like it’s done in her native country: a piece of bread, some butter, a slice of tomato, and some pepper and salt sprinkled on top. “Flor de sal is wonderful, just look at it. All the flakes remind me of the snow we have during winter time in Czech Republic. And, just like diamonds, the first crystals of salt are very rare, shiny and beautiful.”



See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine September 2017


Posted in Features, Food.