Allyson Gofton in France: Salt
Tourist season has started and Paris is making its way southwest to family maisons that have, for the past 10 or so months, been sleeping quietly behind grand wrought iron gates and locked shutters.
Like almost everywhere in the Western world, work is city based and in rural areas where farming is now so mechanised, fewer people are required. Thus, many families live and work far away from the original family farmhouse, returning for the summer vacance or maybe religious fetes, such as Christmas.
It’s at this time the villages spring to life. Caixon’s stone maisons open to breathe in summer’s air, window boxes filled with geranium blooms appearing in nooks and crannies, duvets are refreshed, hanging over window sills, fruit trees, gnarled by age and neglectful care, are being picked of the last of the season’s cherries.
The village laneways are busier, not just with tractors bustling around, ducking from torrents of irrigation showers, but with speeding flashy vehicles, flaunting the well-coiffured who come to de-stress.
Not far from me is the picturesque town of Salies-de-Bearn, its rich heritage related directly to the discovery of thermal salt springs in mediaeval times. The salty spring water was boiled over an open fire — a job that required help from the whole family — and the resulting salt was sold to merchants.
Five hundred townsfolk established a Corporation of Salt Producers, setting its own rules to ensure the town did not lose its salt industry to outsiders. Rock on 500 years and the corporation still exists — with descendants of the original members still managing aspects of the industry today.
Each year Salies-de-Bearn celebrates with a four-day Festival of Salt, and the village is taken over by stalls, parades and street parties. The final event, which everyone turns out to watch, is the Running of the Salt Pails. Dressed in traditional peasant costumes, women and girls carry herrades — traditional wooden 20-litre salt pails — on their heads and run a course around the streets. The winner is the one who manages the least amount of spillage.
The men, representing the tiradours, or brine bucket porters, traditionally costumed with belted coarse sacking tabards, neckerchiefs and berets, run in pairs carrying 92-litre sameaux (wooden buckets) of water hung on sturdy poles that rest on their shoulders.
The course takes in sharp turns around barrels; with much male bravado, it’s a wonderful traditional spectacle — and all for salt. The hot, salty thermal spring water, which today is heated by electricity in large pans to evaporate into sweet salty flakes, also powers a burgeoning spa industry.
Before the 1900s, European royalty came to take the mountain air and saltwater spas as a means to relieve the stress of their life! The industry fell out of favour with the rise in popularity of beach holidays, but nowadays it is undergoing a renaissance.
The hot spring water, 10 times saltier than sea water and with an abundance of minerals — advertising brochures say 27 minerals are to be found — is perfect for city-stressed visitors who can indulge in a salt massage before an aperitif of local wine and salt-cured ham. Some things never change!
This chicken was cooked with a salt blend containing cardamom, ground turmeric, dried rose petals, dried orange peel and pink peppercorns but I have simplified the recipe here. Use only coarse rock salt as flaky or fine-milled salt will dissolve during cooking, creating a salty mess. Coarse rock salt tends to remain whole, while infusing the chicken meat with a delicious flavour. Get the recipe