Salt of Maras: The Purest Salt in the World
Peruvian Pink Sea Salt is One of the Purest
Nestled in the Sacred Valley near Cusco, Maras is birthplace of ancient inland sea salt deposits. Blanketing the hillside like the squares of a patchwork quilt, salty pools evaporate under the Andean sun. Some look like nothing more than mud puddles. In other pools, where the sun and wind have already done their job, rock salt lies in glistening heaps like the legendary treasures of Aladdin’s cave.
What’s all the hype about sea salt? As the oceans become more and more polluted, inland salt deposits are sought by naturalists and foodies alike. Chefs the world over seek artisanal salts for the perfect finishing touch to gourmet foods. But what’s so special about the salt of Maras, or Andean pink salt as it’s often called?
We recently returned from our annual pilgrimage to Cusco, Peru with our bags full of this unrefined mineral salt. It didn't take long for us to appreciate why this salt so valued. But first, let’s consider the history of salt and why we need it, the advantage of artisanal salt over table salt and finally, the culinary uses of Andean or Peruvian pink salt.
Salt is Essential for Life
Salt, our body’s most important electrolyte, is essential to life. Sodium is necessary for proper nerve and muscle function and to maintain blood pressure levels. A lack of salt can cause hyponatremia, a condition which leads to confusion, lethargy, nausea and muscle twitches.
Of course, salt should be enjoyed in moderate. Due to the overconsumption of packaged and fast foods in today's society, many have learned the hard way that an excessively salty diet can lead to conditions such as hypertension. But a sodium-saturated diet is a relatively recent problem. Join us now as we consider the history of salt.
Table of Contents
Salt in History
Table Salt vs. Sea Salt
Amazon Capsules: Where to Buy Pure Sea Salt
Recipes With Sea Salt & Peruvian Recipes
Salt in History
“Heaven knows, a civilized life is impossible without salt.” ~Pliny
A peek into history drives home the truthfulness of Pliny's words. In the 15th century, the ability to preserve fish with salt allowed European explorers to leave comfortable coastal homes and strike out for new horizons. This led to the “discovery” of the Americas. And food historian Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat speculates it would have changed the entire course of Christianity if the Romans had not been sufficiently interested in the salt of the Dead Sea to colonize Palestine.
Have you ever said that someone is “worth his salt”? Historians suggest that the saying dates back to ancient Rome where soldiers were paid for their work in salt, or "salarium". The English word “salary” was derived from the Latin word "salarium". So when you say someone is worth his salt, you mean that he is worth the wage he earns.
Clearly, salt was once a rare and treasured commodity. What developments led to the sodium-saturated diet of modern times?
Table Salt vs. Sea Salt
Fast-forward to the Industrial Age. Salt, or sodium chloride, became mass produced. Instead of hand-mining, salt was produced chemically and refined until no trace minerals remained. Today's market is dominated by such lifeless, additive-filled salt.
Sea salt such as Andean pink is still hand-harvested and unrefined. Chock full of over 80 trace minerals such as iron oxide, magnesium, calcium and potassium, the salt varies in color from pearlescent white to tawny beige to pale rose. Since the crystals are hand-washed and dried in the sun, they have high moisture content.
Once you taste artisanal sea salt there’s no going back to ordinary salt. Unlike table salt's bitter aftertaste, sea salt yields a pure crunch and explosion of mild saltiness. And Andean salt crystals are some of the rarest, most unprocessed and unpolluted in the world. Glistening like jewels, they imbue the dinner table with a beauty that can only be fully appreciated in person.
There is one caveat. Table salt is iodized to supply the iodine necessary for a healthy thyroid. Sea salt is not. In some areas of the world, such as Peru, the soil is iodine-poor. When a diet is deficient in iodine and non-iodized salt is consumed, goiter can become a problem. So if you're unsure whether you receive enough iodine in your diet, use iodized salt while cooking and sea salt only as a finishing touch.
Gourmet chefs often prefer salt from a particular region for the unique flavor and crunch it adds to meat, steamed veggies and pasta. We happen to love Andean pink, both for its availability in our neck of the woods and its delightful flavor and texture. Although sea salt can be added during cooking, as a finishing salt it shines like the North Star. Lightly sprinkle atop food right before serving and your tongue will perceive the texture, minerality and moisture that makes this salt so special.
Coarse sea salts are great for rubbing and tenderizing meat before roasting or grilling. If you are able to get larger crystals, why not purchase a grinder? Always use a salt mill with ceramic or plastic grinding mechanisms as metal grinders will corrode over time. If you find a larger block of artisanal salt, why not try grating it onto foods? It will add an elegant and interesting touch to the dinner table and become the ideal conversation piece.
Sea salt isn't limited to savory foods. Salted chocolate has recently gained popularity in the United States and salted caramels were perfected long ago in Europe. Fleur de sel, a beautiful artisanal salt of Brittany, is sprinkled on caramels in a way that preserves its crunchy texture. If you'd like to see what all the hype is about and try either of these sweet and salty confections, please see recipe capsules at the end of this article.
How is Salt Mined in Maras?
The Maras mine has been in operation since before the Incan empire. Pools are owned and maintained by members of the local community. No modern machinery is involved in the harvest, just rocks to divert springwater and the strong backs of country folk who extract the glistening treasure.
Processed crystals contain trace minerals and vary in color from white to pink to tawny beige. Unlike bitter table salt, Maras salt delights with a clean crunch and mildly briny aftertaste. Some of Lima´s restaurants offer this salt to season their creations. In your excursions around the city, why not savor a pile of crunchy French fries sprinkled with salt of Maras?