Guérande is where the world’s most desired grade of salt comes from. This town is famed for its Fleur de Sel aka flower of salt. Like champagne, the name “Fleur de Sel of Guérande” is a protected geographical indication. Their delicate salt flake is farmed and harvested by HAND. Seriously, no machine is involved. The salt farmers, often topless, literally uses a 3 meter wooden rake (in French: lousse à fleur) to skim on the salt mash to harvest them. Yup, that’s part of the tourism 😉 if you visit at the right time of the year, you can attempt to harvest a bag of your own!
The making of Fleur de Sel
Fleur de sel harvesting is an ultra sensual job because it requires accurate, finesse movement. The weather is also key, one needs heat and the right type of breeze. The paludier, salt artisan, needs to skim the salt mash clay pond (in French: oeillets) skillfully to ensure successful harvest. If the paludier moves too quickly or the movement is too abrupt, the flakes will be lost. It is all about the balance of movement.
Contrary to the usual men dominated manual work, the traditionally preferred fleur de sel harvester is female because woman possesses that right gentle touch. Not sure if that was a joke, but that’s what a local told me.
You can spot other salt harvesters in the rest of France. For instance, in the south of France, there’s Camargue. Their tools are slightly different and their harvesters are called “sauniers” instead. Yes, the French are very crazy about their own region’s specialties.
What it takes to become a Paludier?
To qualify as a master fleur de sel skimmer, one needs to do an 11 months course on a range of agricultural / environmental subjects and complete an internship with a qualified salt farm. The entire process takes 2 years. The qualification is called “CAP paludier”. If you’re interested to become one, here’s the link to the French chamber of agriculture 😉 The site is in French though.
Why is Fleur de Sel special?
The harvesting itself is an art form, but fleur de sel’s true worth is in its delicate lingering flavour on the tongue. It’s subtle flavour and texture comes from a combination its pyramidal crystal formation, mineral content and humidity level. It is no wonder why these fine salt flakes is many gourmet chef’s favourite topping to finish a plat.
Fleur de sel is not unique to Guérande, but salt from Guérande has a special status due to its mineral content; unique in taste. Arguably, this is true for each region’s fleur de sel. I guess, it all boils down to marketing? There has been some food science research done to prove the difference. In my humble opinion, when it comes to food, it is very personal. Don’t let no body tells you what tastes best 😉
When is the Fleur de Sel harvest time?
The best of the year to visit is during summer (June to September), because that’s the fleur de sel harvest time! Plus, you can actually experience the harvesting yourself. Yup, some salt farms offer that. Sad for me, my visit happened around the Christmas time.
Normally, Guérande has around 16,000 inhabitants. If you do visit during the summer, it will feels like 100,000 lives there. It is a well known local French summer holiday sort of thing.
After you’re done with seeing the salt farms, visit the old town! It has one of the best preserved medieval fortified wall in all of France!
Camera: Canon 5D mark 3