The Guérande salt marshes and their history
The Guérande salt marshes are located in southern Brittany, a region in north-west France, between the mouths of the rivers Loire and Vilaine, along the Atlantic Ocean. They form a very large wetland zone, stretching nearly 5,000 acres across 9 communes (French municipalities), from Guérande (in the south) to Assérac (in the north).
Centuries-old traditions for harvesting Guérande salt have not changed; the salt workers, called “paludiers” (from the latin “palu” meaning “marsh”), traditionally use the tides and three types of ponds to gather salt, harvesting daily in a wet environment, without mechanization. Though certain elements of the harvest have been modernized, Guérande salt remains unique in not only its geographical and geological location, but also of the traditions still honored by those who collect it.
Guérande salt has a very long history, having been harvested on the peninsula since the Iron Age. The first salt works to use the storage capacity of the lagoon goes back to the third century, shortly after Roman conquest.
The real inspiration behind the use of salt marshes came from the monks from Landévennec Abbey, who, in 945, founded Batz Priory in the region. By studying the tides, wind and sun, the monks mapped out a plan for the salt works, which still exists today. An enormous, laborious project, this open-air factory brought prosperity to Guérande for many centuries and opened up the first trading routes in Europe, becoming the “Eldorado” of Brittany.
Current harvesting technique goes back to before the 9th Century. At least five salt ponds from the Carolingian period are still in operation on the marshes. The preservation of the salt workers’ traditions has allowed the Guérande marshes to survive through to modern times.
Harvesting Guérande Salt
In summer, at each high tide, a salt worker will fill his vasière (the first evaporation pond on the circuit, which acts as a reserve between tides) with seawater. The “vasière” also acts as a settling pond in which particles in suspension, carried by the sea, will be deposited.
A slight, constant change in level allows the water to flow into the evaporation ponds which act as a reserve, supplying the final set of ponds, the œillets—from which the salt is harvested. While the Atlantic Ocean has a salt concentration of 25 g/l the water in an œillet reaches a level of concentration at which the salt crystallizes (280 g/l) and is left behind once the water is evaporated by sun and wind.
The salt worker must carefully adjust the water levels in the various ponds in order to harvest the fruit of his labor, the famous Guérande salt. Depending on the way the salt crystals are harvested, two kinds of salt can be produced: The “Flower of salt” and the “Guérande coarse sea salt.”
Flower of Salt
“Flower of salt” is harvested in the Guérande salt marshes, late in the afternoon during very dry weather. Under the combined effect of the sun and a dry east wind, a fine skin of crystals forms on the surface of the œillets. This skin, which is a pure white as it has never touched clay, is carefully gathered by the salt workers using a special rake known as the lousse à fleur. The special weather conditions and the small quantity produced make it a rare and popular product.
In the last few years, flower of salt has gained a celebrated reputation among food lovers. Very white, with fine, snow-like crystals and a very slight hint of violet, it enhances meals by bringing out the taste of even the finest dishes. Only a small amount should be used on raw or cooked food.
Guérande Coarse Sea Salt
Guérande coarse sea salt has always been hand-harvested using traditional methods and is well known for its culinary virtues. It is naturally gray, and it crystallizes on contact with the clay from which it takes its high trace element content. Less salty than Mediterranean salt, Guérande salt is softer on the palate and richer in flavor, which makes it the salt preferred by cooks for salting stocks, the water used for cooking vegetables, as well as for barbecues, meat, and fish cooked in a salt crust. Unwashed, unrefined and additive-free, it adds flavor to traditional family cooking.
Coarse salt is harvested every day in summer when the weather is mild with both wind and sun on the Guérande peninsula. In the late afternoon, under the effect of evaporation, the salt crystallises and is deposited on the clay in the œillets. The salt worker uses a wide wooden rake known as a las to push the salt to the edges of the pond. He then pulls it on to the ladure, a round platform made of clay, where it is left overnight to drain. The next day, the salt worker uses a wooden wheelbarrow to carry over 130 pounds of salt per œillet to a large stockpile of salt, known as the mulon.
The Guérande salt is neither treated nor refined and is very rich in magnesium and trace elements. Therefore, the flower of salt and the coarse sea salt (used as coarse salt or crushed in fine salt) are ideal for every type of use in the kitchen and on the table.
In March 2012, the salt of Guérande and the flower of salt of Guérande obtained their IGP (Protected Geographical Indication), which guarantees the origin and quality of the salt and the flower of salt from Guérande. It is the first time this distinction has been granted for a salt in Europe.
To learn more :
– Visit the website of the association of salt workers in Guérande