Fleur de Sel

There’s been a lot of discussion about what is the best salt in the world. There’s lots of opinions, tastings, and scientific studies floating around.

But I’m here to tell you, my absolute favorite salt is Fleur de sel de Guérande. I think there’s no finer salt available anywhere.

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When I was invited to visit the salt marshes and learn to rake the highly-prized, precious crystals of fleur de sel, I decided that the Guérande, in Brittany, would make the perfect place to begin my August vacation. Brittany is a rugged part of France that faces the Atlantic and is unspoiled by tourists. The coastline is gorgeous: large rock formations are piled everywhere, giving one many opportunities to ascend the boulders and enjoy the magnificent views in all directions. The ocean was a bit too cold for me to swim in, but Bretons have no trouble diving right in.

(Trust me, it’s freezing cold, which meant no swimming at the beach for me…especially the naturist beaches!)

But there’s also lots of buckwheat crêpes and sparkling apple cider to keep your spirits up as well, just in case you get stuck in one of the rainstorms, as I often did. And although the Guérande lies in the south of the region, and in spite of Breton flags everywhere, I was curiously told by the locals that the Guérande was actually part of the Loire-Atlantique, not Brittany.
Like the numbered roadway signs that lead to nowhere (locals told us not to follow the signs since they’re wrong), and in spite of the magnificent Michelin maps, driving in France provides its fair-share of frustrations.

Still, we managed to make it, and by the time we arrived I was ready to throttle someone. Yet looking out over the marshes did indeed have a calming effect—perhaps they can build a salt marsh in Paris, visible from my apartment?

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Le Marais Salant of the Guérande.

These are the salt marshes of the Guérande, les œillets.
They’re so prominent, that they’re visible on the Michelin maps of France, although when I got home and tried to look on Google maps, viewing the region was prohibited. Perhaps there’s a military installation nearby, since it’s on the coast. The exceptional salt from the Guérande is justifiably famous since it tastes like no other salt in the world. Although the words ‘fleur de sel’ have been bantered around and used as marketing tools for many salts being promoted (nowadays you find salts labeled as such from Portugal, Italy, and elsewhere) nowhere else on earth does the salt have the same fine flavor and delicate crystals of Fleur de Sel de Guérande.


When I asked about the other French salts which are calling themselves ‘fleur de sel’, such as, Fleur de Sel de Camargue, my guide screwed up his face, wrinkled his nose, and told me that it that kind of salt was mechanically harvested. Not the finer flakes of salt floating on the surface of the marshes, but the top crust simply scraped off ordinary coarse salt (although the publicity for the salt from the Camargue claims it’s hand-harvested). Fleur de Sel de Guérande doesn’t touch the coarse grey salt beneath the surface and merely floats on the surface, delicately scraped off for harvesting.

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Large crystals of salt from the harvest.

So what is Fleur de Sel de Guérande, and why it is so special (and expensive)?

Sel de Guérande is harvested by hand, raked from the salty ocean water from the Atlantic that’s carefully guided into shallow marshes through a complex series of 10 various, winding waterways. Being guided from the ocean, it floats down a narrow path encircling the marshes. Along the way the water is held in a basin, called a vasière, where fish, eels, and everything else you don’t want to find in your salt shaker is cleared from the water before it’s guided into narrower channels, and ultimately into the marshes, the œillets. Starting out, ocean water has roughly 27 grams of salt per liter, but by the time the water makes it way into the œillets, it’s far saltier, containing 300 grams of salt per liter.

In the marshes, when the water evaporates to a depth of about 1/2 to 1 centimeter (about 1/2-inch), a fine layer of salt collects on the surface, and is delicately raked up with a lousse à de fleur, designed to disturb the tender crust as little as possible during the process. The salt is raked by specialists, a delicate job formerly entrusted only to women, by people called paludiers.

This fine layer of salt is the Fleur de Sel de Guérande, and is the most highly-prized of all salts. Salt harvesting in this region began in the year 868, and as mentioned, only women were allowed to rake the fleur de sel, since men were thought to be too rough to do such delicate work.

Once harvested, the women would gather the salt into large bowls, or gèdes, weighing roughly 30 kilos (65 pounds), and carry it to the shore perched on their heads since the pathways were too narrow to navigate otherwise. But when the rubber wheel was invented, that simplified the process, and was perhaps more comfortable, and wheel barrels were used beginning in 1932. But even to this day, all the salt is hand-harvested in the Guérande and the only mechanical part of the process is the truck which drives the salt to the packaging facility close-by.

Each marsh can yield about 1 kilo (2.2 pounds) of Fleur de Sel per day, although during the July heatwave recently, the water evaporated quickly and much more salt was harvested than normal. However although I was anxious to wield the rake myself, during my visit, the weather was foul, drizzly, and wet, making the marshes too wet and salt was unable to collect on the surface.

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Large, irregular crystals of sel gris get protection from the wet weather.

Because it was so damp and drizzling rain, the recently harvested coarse grey salt had to be covered by tarps and there was no salt to be harvested. But I took a taste and it was delicious; delicate and sea-salty, tasting vaguely of the ocean, like the fine salt that you taste licking your lips after a day at the beach.

Grey salt, the other salt harvested in the Guérande, is from the same marshes, but is collected by vigorously raking the salt with a wooden lousse, from below the surface of the water. Unlike grey salts from elsewhere, which can get their color from the metal bulldozers used for harvesting, the grey salt of the Guérande gets its color from argile, the dense clay lining the marshes, which is also where it gets its special flavor and high magnesium content. Every 30 years the marshes are drained, cleaned, and the argile gets replenished to begin the process again.

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Dark chocolate bars with fleur de sel from Henri Le Roux, in Quiberon.

So why and how should you use Fleur de Sel de Guérande?

If you take a taste of Fleur de Sel de Guérande, then a taste of ordinary table salt, you’ll never go back to using ordinary table salt again. You’ll find its taste acrid and bitter. Try it sometime. Fleur de sel is a ‘finishing’ salt; you don’t cook with it, but sprinkle it over just before serving. I like it on leafy green salads, grilled meats and fish, or sprinkled over slices of cool melon or pineapple. It’s also amazing sprinkled on dark and milk chocolate too!. If you cook with it, such as adding it to a soup, it melts, and you loose the special character of the fleur de sel, so reserve it for the final flourish.

For those of you concerned about your salt intake, I spent a week cooking for two people and only had with me a small vial of fleur de sel. I ended up using about 1 teaspoon of salt for the week. Since junk food and many pre-packaged foods are loaded with salt, those are what you may wish to avoid. Fleur de sel is reportedly lower in sodium than ordinary table salt as well.

Lastly, what shocks many people about Fleur de Sel de Guérande is the price. After all, you can get a big round box of table salt for about 50 cents at the supermarket. If you come to France, Fleur de Sel de Guérande is available in many supermarkets and outdoor markets. My source is Monsieur Dion at the Richard Lenoir market (Thursdays and Sundays). If you visit the Maison de Sel where the salt is harvested, coarse grey salt costs about 1.5€ per kilo, and fleur de sel costs a mere 13€ per kilo (about $8 per pound).

Fleur de sel is one of the great bargains in France and a small 250g (8 oz) bag generally can be had for about 4-5€ in many markets and shops, and I would imagine a normal person might go through one of those little bags a year, or .01095 cents per day. But even if you buy yours in the states, 4 cents a day is a lot cheaper, and lasts far longer, than one of those turbo-sized coffees that costs 4 bucks that everyone’s always schlepping around. Aren’t you worth it?

Oh, and just in case you’re thinking that only pretentious foodies care about what kind of salt they’re using, think again…

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Visiting the Guérande

Terre de Sel
(Guided visits of the marshes, in French. Call for hours, reservations and tours in English.)
Route des Marais Salants
Guérande
Tél: 02 40 62 08 80

Maison des Paludiers
(Film and indoor discussion of salt harvesting. No reservations required.)
Saillé (near Guérande)
Tél: 02 40 62 21 96

Two Local Guests Houses:
Chez L’Habitant
50 Boulevard de Lauvergnac
La Turballe
Tél: 02 40 23 32 18

Les Close des Pins
Route de Méliniac
La Turballe
Tél: 02 40 23 33 69

For Dining:
(Moules-Frites, Crêpes, and Seafood)
L’Escale
Port de la Turballe
La Turballe
Tél: 02 40 62 82 81

32 comments

  • Have you ever sprinkled it on hot buttered toast? Mmm.

  • Wow, great article. I admit to being somewhat of a posh-salt-skeptic (a sprinkling of Maldon is about as fancy as it gets around here), but you make a pretty convincing case.

    p.s. Did you fill your pockets when no one was looking?

  • I returned from France a little over a week ago and while there, I had planned on getting some Fleur de Sel after reading a previous post of yours that had made mention of it. When I was there I asked the friend I was visiting if they could take me to buy some but she had never even heard of it! After much searching (in broken French) I was able to find some at a Natural market near her apartment. I used it for the first time in some guacamole (with avocados fresh from my tree) upon my return to the States. It was amazing, and thanks to your indepth article, I’m going to treasure my purchase even more! Thanks!

  • Sprinkled on soft scrambled organic eggs!!!!! perfection. brenda

  • OHHHH! That is the best salt in the world. I use it all the time (well, when applicable). I LOVE the fleur de sel caramels…they are divine!

  • Ooh, yes, I bet it is wonderful in guacamole! I think I know what souvenirs all my friends and family will be getting from my trip!

    David, do you sprinkle this salt on your Glace Caramel?

  • the way i love it most is sprinkled on warm potatoes, yummy :)

    i also love to make my own butter pot too :
    i cut some “butter without salt” in small pieces, and i add fleur de sel, 3% of the butter weight. i press all this butter in shape in a bowl, and i use it on my morning bread.
    it’s way better than casual “butter with salt” from the shop :) .

  • David honey, can I be you for just, like, ONE week?

    SIGH.

    What a LIFE you live! Simply TOO faboo.

    Salt marshes and chocolate…totally dreamy.

  • I know how you feel!

    I was truly moved to tears when I visited the salt marshes in Sicily ( Mozia) outside of Trapani.
    It is a small cooperative, with only 10 workers, hand harvested salt.

    recently I had a chocolate mousse drizzled with an orange olive oil. were the mandarine ornage peels are crushed with the olives, not just infused… Maldon Salt… and breadsticks..
    Lordy Lordy!

    and yes sea salt is lower in sodium.. and higher in minerals.

    At the Central market in florence, they now have persion blue!!! with fossils???.. to compete with the Himalayan pink..
    sounds like more stash!

  • i always buy sel de guerande (and would agree on it being superior to the camargue one) – i stok up on it when i travel to france, as it is very expensive here. i have a year’s supply of sel gris which i use for cooking (potatoes, pasta etc) and fleur de sel for finishing and anything raw. i even buy my butter with fleur de sel (bridel)!
    Best thing for me is a slice of rye brad (or a toasted poilane country loaf), some butter, fleur de sel and a handful of chives… mmmhh!
    thanks for the links, too, i have always wondered what kosher salt was, it’s not something we have over here.
    I have been planning a salt tasting for uk foodbloggers before the end of the year, as i have amassed fleur de sel from the guerande (some with seaweed), the camargue, even south africa, my native (alpine) salt and some pink salt rocks from the himalaya (to be grated over your food) – might as well share it. the tasting methods will come in handy!

  • I lugged half a kilo back from France to the utter disbelief of my family.Thanks for letting me know it shouldn’t be flung into food while cooking.I was hanging on to the precious stuff a bit, not exactly generous with it. It’s going to last for ages if we add it later though.
    So next trip its going to be Maldon.

  • I am disappointed; I was hoping for a picture of you raking the salt. Avez-vous le Macro lens yet?

  • Lucy: I buy butter with big hunks of gros sel in it, which goes perfectly with honey on my morning toast.

    Gail: I was disappointed too! Since it was drizzly, there was no salt to be harvested. My Macro lens is on my Amazon Wish List, and am hoping that one of my fabulously wonderful readers will buy it for me in recognition for all my hard-work on this blog : )

    Deccanheffalump: Glad you were smart and stocked up. Maldon is ok, and I think less expensive (but not as good, in my opinion.)

    Johanna: Having a salt tasting is a really good way to see the difference between salts. And invite me! I want to try alpine salt.

    Diva: I want Trapani salt! Can I get some when I come visit next month?

    Rachel: Except for the freezing-cold naturiste beaches, I appreciate all the things I get to do…and eat!

    Krysalia: That sounds like a good recipe, although I wouldn’t stop at 3%.

    Jeff: I use fleur de sel on ice cream…and pineapple. It’s the best!

    Melissa: Unfortunately someone must’ve tipped them off, since they were keeping a rather watchful eye on me. Still, I did take an unauthorized taste. Or two.

  • Sounds like fabulous trip (but then, trips to France tend to be!!). I do agree that once you’ve tasted fleur de sel and ordinary table salt side by side, you’ll never go back, and there’s definitely something about the textture that’s far more pleasing. I ADORE the butters that you get in France with the great big crystals of fleur de sel scattered throughout it – I could slice and eat them like cheese…! My friends thought I had lost my mind when they saw the price tag on my little bag of fleur de sel – not to mention my dear husband! And yes, yes – of course you’re invited to our salt tasting! We might also combine it with a butter tasting for total sensory overload!

  • Great posting. Dashed off to the market right away to get some. (Luckily, otherwise boring Duesseldorf has a really good near-French quality market.) Will start using it tonight. Thank you!

  • david> 3% is actually the french limit for ” beurre demi-sel “, half salted butter, that’s why i’ve chosen this amount :) .

    Did you know that there’s a french superstition about carrying salt on the road ?
    it probably came from last century, when there was a lot of salt regulations and taxes.
    My grand mother who always come with us near guerande every year for hollydays, says every year that we are fools to take some salt back with us, because it will bring us some accidents on the road and other bad things :)
    and she’s really scared, even if nothing happened in twenty years :) .

  • you do know that its just BS when they say that only women are chosen paludiers because they are perfect for the ‘delicate’ job, dont you? it’s yet another male conspiracy to make women do all the backbreaking work!!!

    nice reading tho’..

  • Yes, what’s with the “women only” as paludiers? Somewhere I have an old stereopticon card which shows men, in berets and heavy blouson work smocks, harvesting salt in the marshes.

    This brings back a lamentably vague childhood memory of seeing the salt harvest in person. It was my seventh summer, spent with my grandparents in Pornichet. Mornings were dedicated to “Club Mickey” (this was DECADES before EuroDisney) on the beach–torture until I started picking up some French. But afternoons brought excursions, and this was one of the more memorable–I always wondered how they kept the sand out of the salt! But I remember more clearly the stops for made-to-order crepes dentelles, crispy, buttery sweet and heavenly. Do they still have street vendors pouring batter onto those angled griddles?

  • Wonderful post. I must figure out how to get some of this!

  • Wow, salt flats look a lot like rice flats. Sadly, French salt is not yet available in South Korea, but I am holding on the memory of one of Fran’s Chocolates gray and smoked salt caramels until I am back in Seattle where I plan to sprinkle all I eat with grey sea salt. Screw sodium intake.

  • Cibreo sells the crystals!!1 if not I would have shared some of mine too!

  • I go to Andorra to buy olive oil. My Andorran friends come here (the Vendee)to buy their salt.
    Part of the fun of living here are the trips we ‘have’ to take to get ingredients we love. Next month it’s Paris….

  • Fantastic tip. I can’t wait to try it. I’ve had Fleur de Sel from l’île de Ré, and I’ve never felt the same way about salt again.

  • thanks for the great info, david, and for shedding some light on the subject…i had actually purchased some from a vendor at a market in paris (maubert/mutalite metro stop) this past summer, but of the bath salt variety…i hadn’t a clue what the ‘guerande’ nomenclature was all about, and my bad french prevented me from getting that far in the conversation with him! i will definitely stop by again next visit to bring back some of the cooking kind…thanks again for the tip.

  • btw for those in the states near a trader joe’s…they have a couple of different varieties of sea salt. i’ve been using the ‘hawaiian red’ sea salt…it’s with baked red algae & great sprinkled on steamed veggies with some evoo & garlic.

  • This is an amazing article. Do you mind if I link to it from my on-line food dictionary at http://www.whatamieating.com? It is so good.
    With many thanks,
    Suzy

    Hi Suzy: Of course you’re welcome to link, but because of the copyright, only a phrase from the site can be excerpted. Thanks. -dl

  • I’ve been surfing for info regarding the grey salt you referred to above. I’ve just ordered some and am hoping that it is from the same source. (not bulldozers!)
    But I am new to this whole salt subject and quite ignorant.
    I am able to dry it (just dehydrating as with fruits) and so will be finding a grinder,
    but then can it be used in any recipe? (where clarity doesn’t matter: I see on your site where appearance may be affected by the clay.)
    Or should I find a different salt for bread and baking and reserve this for stews, meats,v veggies.
    Thanks for your time, your site is very enjoyable!

  • Hi Gigi: Most of the taste and enjoyment of salt comes from how fine it is ground. If your sea salt (or gray salt) is coarse, it’s best used in cooking. Finely-ground, you can use it as a finishing salt, to add at the end. You can grind salt in a mortar and pestle or blender to the desired size.

    Fleur de sel should never be cooked with as it loses its special taste if dissolved, so it should be sprinkled over things like salads, fish, vegetables, and chocolate (yum!)

  • This salt is also fantastic with heirloom tomatoes. I recently tried this in France and am now officially hooked! Going to blog about it this week…can’t stop thinking about it!

  • Yes Guérande and the Loire-Atlantique department are in Brittany, for sure! The French created an administrative region without Loire-Atlantique and called it “Bretagne”, that’s all… Guérande is Gwenrann in Breton, which means “white furrow”, prooving salt production to be very old in the region.

  • David, this is wonderful! I just came by it thanks to a link on HiP Paris Blogger Tory…. I give Fleur de Sel de Guérande as very, very welcome gifts when visiting friends and family in Switzerland, England. They are equally crazy for it as we are.

    I use it certainly on my organic lightly cooked eggs. It’s just SO delicious. And on my garden-fresh cherry tomatos in summer…. and on slices of cucumber, and in dips I make from fromage frais and fresh herbs…. and…. and…

    Thank you for this oldie but newie for me! You are my food star…. :)

  • Great article. We love this “sel”. Maybe you can help me get M. Dion’s address. My husband, a professional photographer took some great photos of him this summer and we promised to send him some, and then, unfortunately lost his address. We’d love to follow through!
    Merci,
    Jackie