Salt and pepper are essentials. Even in cuisines that rely on condiments like fish sauce, Worcestershire or an array of mustards to season their dishes, salt and/or pepper are at the heart of each.
You couldn’t cook without them, but do you ever stop to consider where they come from?
Bertha Booker of Botany Bay Sea Salt is a salt farmer on Wadmalaw Island just south of Charleston, South Carolina. Booker came into salt farming almost by accident. She was on a kayaking adventure along the coast and had forgotten to bring salt to season her meal. Realizing she was surrounded by salt water, she put a little in her cook stove and “cooked” out the water. The salt left in the pan helped her, an aspiring farmer of vegetables, think salt might be another “crop” she could cultivate.
Twenty-one months later, she cleared all the hurdles presented by state and federal agencies to become South Carolina’s first modern permitted salt producer. “There was nothing on the books saying you couldn’t harvest native South Carolina seawater for the purpose of making salt, but nothing saying you could, either.”
What Booker finds most striking is that she is following in the footsteps of William Mellichamp, a Huguenot colonist who operated a salt works at the mouth of the North Edisto River in the early 1700s, just across the river from where she farms now.
Producing salt is essentially a process of evaporation, as Booker’s experiment with her camp stove shows. It takes 1,000 pounds of water to produce 25 pounds of salt. That’s similar to the 40-to-1 ratio of maple sap to maple syrup. She harvests the water from water sources designated as Outstanding Resource Waters, a grade even cleaner than water deemed safe for harvesting shellfish.
The water sits in settling tanks for a few days, then is filtered and pumped into 48-foot-long solar salt ponds, each looking like a long, low greenhouse. The water sits in a shallow pan. Warmed by the sun, it slowly evaporates. In the winter, it can take a month to evaporate all the water. In the summer? Maybe 10 days.
There’s more to it, but Booker says the process of producing salt with the texture she prefers is a trade secret.
Does she ever tire of her salt? “I love my salt. I love the texture and how it has a more natural ocean flavor. … Even when you grind my salt, it’s still flaky. If you’re cooking pasta, you just want a box of grocery store salt to season the water. Add my salt at the last moment as a ‘finishing’ salt.”
Booker does gild the lily a bit, though. She takes a portion of her flaky salt and smokes it with a traditional coastal blend of hickory, pecan and locally and sustainably harvested live oak. Asked to suggest uses for her smoked salt, Booker grows rhapsodic. “On eggs. On tomatoes. On avocado toast. On salmon. On melon. Or rimming cocktail glasses for drinks like a Salty Dog or margarita.”
Peppercorn farming is a bit more traditional than salt farming. Black, white and green peppercorns are harvested from the Piper nigrum plant, growing on long woody vines that thrive in tropical temperatures like those of Vietnam, Indonesia and India.
Jerry Good of ImportFood Thai Supermarket remembers seeing pepper growing in Quang Tri province, Vietnam. “The plants look like telephone poles. They’re grown straight up, super tall and perfectly straight.”
Good has been able to source freshly dried black peppercorns and import them to the States to share with his customers. “We got in a few pounds and sold out in half a day. We were able to get more, and they are terrific with flavor and fragrance unlike anything you’ve experienced. But every time we get them, we sell out quickly.”
If your only experience with black peppercorns is from that tin on the grocery shelf filled with peppercorns harvested maybe a year ago, the fresh peppercorns are a revelation. They’re actually soft enough to chew and have a bright flavor that’s almost citruslike. But beware if you decide to chew on a handful: They still have that pepper bite, even stronger than those that have been sitting around for a while.
“I take one whole peppercorn and whack it with a cleaver, then add it to what I’m cooking, especially soups,” Good said. “You can really appreciate it when you have those coarse bits of pepper in what you’re eating. And the aroma is amazing.”
Good’s peppercorns are grown on a small family farm in Vietnam’s central highlands near the city of Pleiku. “The rich soil and ideal conditions there make for wonderful pepper.”
What’s all this I hear about finishing salts?
Using salt while you’re cooking brings out the flavor of food, but (unless you use too much) it’s just a background player in the flavor of your dish. Finishing salts are the ones you sprinkle on when a dish is ready to be enjoyed. Some, like Botany Bay Sea Salt, are single-origin salts with nuances of flavor from wherever they’re harvested and distinct crystal characteristics. Others are combinations of salt and seasonings, like Gunpowder Finishing Salt from Kevin Gillespie and Beautiful Briny Sea.
Peppercorns — what’s the difference?
1. Black, green and white peppercorns are all the berries of the Piper nigrum, a vine that grows in tropical climates. The difference between the three types is that they’ve been harvested and treated differently. The black peppercorn we know best is the dried fruit. Green peppercorns are the unripe fruit, picked while still green and generally preserved in brine. A white peppercorn is a black peppercorn with its skin removed.
2. Pink peppercorns are the dried berries of a shrub, Schinus molle. They’re called “peppercorns” because they resemble black peppercorns, but they have a fruity flavor and are fragile, so you want to crush them with a knife or mortar and pestle, not try to grind them with a pepper grinder.
3. Sichuan peppercorns are the fruit of plants in the Zanthoxylum family. They’re prized for the tingling and numbing sensation they produce when you eat them.
Two more ways to use salt and pepper:
1. Don’t throw out the rest of that bunch of dill or parsley. Use it to make an herb salt. In the bowl of a food processor, combine 1 cup kosher salt with 1 cup fresh herbs. Use just one variety of herb (basil is particularly fragrant preserved this way) or mix a combination of your favorites. Store the salt in an airtight container in your freezer. Use as a rub, to season pasta water or as a finishing salt for a salad or olive-oil brushed toasted bread.
2. Use coarsely ground black pepper to create a spicy coating for anything you’re going to fry or roast. Brush bacon with maple syrup (so the pepper has something to stick to) and then sprinkle generously with pepper. Try the same treatment with roasted carrots or cauliflower. Mix pepper with grated Parmesan as the breading for chicken cutlets.
Where to buy regional salts:
• Florida Pure Sea Salt, floridapureseasalt.com
Where to buy freshly dried peppercorns:
Six recipes to expand your horizon on cooking with salt and pepper.
Botany Bay Sea Salt’s Caprese Salad
Bertha Booker of South Carolina’s Botany Bay Sea Salt finds this classic recipe is a great way to show off the quality of her hand-harvested salt. “It perfectly highlights the salt and its flaky texture. In fact, I sometimes make this salad and offer it as samples at the farmers market.”
— Adapted from a recipe provided by Bertha Booker of Botany Bay Sea Salt.
Tuscany at Your Table’s Pasta Cacio e Pepe (Pasta with Cheese and Black Pepper)
Luigi D’Arienzo, chef and co-owner of Virginia-Highland’s Tuscany at Your Table (tuscanyatyourtable.com), teaches this dish and many other recipes during in-store cooking classes. He considers it “a sort of a go-to dish when it’s too late to eat out and you might not have a lot in the house but you want to eat something tasty.” He says to prepare it well, you need to follow the proper technique. “Getting the right balance between the pecorino cheese and the pasta water isn’t simple. Done right, the end result is a very creamy sauce with no butter, cream or oil.” Handling the black pepper correctly is another secret to success with this dish. D’Arienzo will be teaching Pasta Cacio e Pepe along with Tuscan Salad and Cannoli in a May 24 cooking class at the store, 1050 N. Highland Ave. NE, Atlanta.
— Adapted from a recipe provided by Luigi D’Arienzo of Tuscany at Your Table.
Kevin Gillespie’s Santa Maria BBQ with Gunpowder Finishing Salt
Finishing touches are critical, particularly in the restaurant business. Kevin Gillespie and Gunshow’s then-executive chef Joey Ward had this in mind when they created Gunpowder Finishing Salt (redbeardmerch.com/products/gunpowder). The blend includes Hawaiian volcanic salt with chipotle, black pepper, garlic, onion, sumac and more. The tangy spice mix has a mineral clean finish with smoky, residual heat. It goes especially well with grilled meats, fried foods, and barbecue.
Gillespie says this dish is best if you can cook it over a real red oak fire, but provides directions in case that’s not available to you.
The tri-tip is a cut that can be hard to find at your grocery store. Ask the store meat manager if they can order one for you, or pick one up at the Chop Shop, DeKalb Farmers Market or call ahead to Shields Meat Market and order one.
Pinquito beans are a traditional accompaniment to Santa Maria-style barbecue and use dried pinquito beans, which may be difficult to find here. The finished beans are seasoned with bacon, onion, garlic, chile powder and green chiles. Try making your own with pinto beans, if you like.
— Adapted from a recipe provided by Kevin Gillespie.
— Adapted from a recipe provided by Kevin Gillespie.
Zach Meloy’s Pink Peppercorn Ice Cream
Last fall, Zach Meloy, late of Better Half and now operating Pulpit Suppers, prepared a Smoked Honey and Fig Tart with a white cheddar crust for a dinner celebrating Tillamook cheese in every course. I haven’t forgotten the surprise of his pairing the tart with pink peppercorn ice cream. The juxtaposition of hot and sweet and creamy made that ice cream almost addictive.
Pink peppercorns don’t come from the same family as our familiar black peppercorns. They’re available dried at the DeKalb Farmers Market and specialty spice shops.
— Adapted from a recipe provided by Zach Meloy.
Salt and Pepper Caramels
This recipe is perfect for experimenting with other varieties of pepper. Try pink peppercorns or even Sichuan peppercorns (neither of which are members of the real peppercorn family) if you like, but with freshly dried black peppercorns, these caramels are totally addictive.
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