Fleur de sel (pronounced "flure-de-SELL") is a rare and expensive form of sea salt that is harvested in parts of France. The name fleur de sel is French for "flower of salt."
What is Fleur de Sel?
Salt is a common mineral on our planet, and most of the salt that's used in cooking is either dug out of the ground, in much the same way coal or other minerals are extracted, or extracted via a technique similar to fracking, where fresh water is pumped into the ground above a salt deposit. The salt dissolves in the water, and the salt-saturated water is then pumped out and evaporated on large heated pans.
Both these methods are comparatively simple, albeit performed on a large scale.
Fleur de sel is produced by a process that is considerably more complicated, which involves collecting the thin layer of salt that rises to the surface of shallow pools of seawater along the coast of France, mainly but not exclusively in the Brittany region.
A useful analogy might be to think of diver scallops, which are collected by hand, by a human who literally dives to the ocean floor to gather them, as compared with ordinary scallops, which are harvested by a boat dragging a net behind it to scoop them up.
Fleur de Sel Vs Sea Salt
Because it forms naturally under certain very limited weather conditions, and because it must be skimmed off by hand, fleur de sel is, by any estimation, an extremely expensive product, costing $30 per pound or even more.
Which makes sense if you think about how fleur de sel differs from ordinary sea salt. Ordinary sea salt is made by evaporating seawater and then collecting the remaining salt into mounds.
Fleur de sel, on the other hand, comes from the delicate crystals of salt that form atop shallow pools of seawater, and must be harvested by hand by skimming them from the surfaces of these pools using special sieves. The result is a much more delicate, almost flaky crystal.
Moreover, many products that go by the name of sea salt were actually obtained from salt mines, not seawater—although technically these underground salt deposits were originally produced by oceans during some distant geological era.
Varieties of Fleur de Sel
Traditionally, fleur de sel comes from the French coastal region of Brittany, owing to the unique properties of the beaches there, the way the seawater collects in shallow pools, the climate, the particular salt content of the water and so on.
Similar flake salts harvested in the same manner, are produced in other places, however, such as Greece, Spain, Portugal, Mexico, Brazil, even Canada. The flavors and textures will be slightly different, of course.
Fleur de Sel Uses
This high cost means that it shouldn't be used as an ordinary seasoning. Instead, think of it as almost a garnish or condiment. A few crystals of fleur de sel sprinkled over a dish right before serving add a burst of flavor, visual appeal and even texture.
Having obtained a stash of fleur de sel, you will want to use it carefully. For one thing, it is very delicate and will quickly dissolve, so it really should be added to a dish immediately before serving. You'll still taste it after it dissolves, but you won't see it or feel its distinctive texture.
One interesting use of fleur de sel is sprinkling it on candies, on caramels, or other sweet items, like creme brulee, which both heightens and contrasts the sweetness.
Other uses include as a topping for oatmeal, eggs, vegetables, cooked meats, poultry and fish, as well as baked goods from cupcakes to pretzels.
What Does it Taste Like?
Fleur de sel is salty, of course, although it has a high moisture content and retains a certain briny flavor from the sea. Additionally, this moisture content encourages the salt crystals to stick together on your tongue, causing the flavor to be perceived more intensely.
Fleur de Sel Recipes
Where to Buy Fleur de Sel
For the most part, fleur de sel is available from online retailers like Amazon, as well as specialty food stores. A typical 4.4 oz container of fleur de sel (about 125 grams) harvested in coastal parts of the south of France, near where the Rhone river meets the Mediterranean sea, will set you back about $9, which is actually pretty reasonable as long as you understand that you're purchasing a flavorful and high-end garnish. You would not, for instance, want to use this product for salting your pasta water.
How to Store Fleur de Sel
It's best to store fleur de sel in a glass or porcelain container (i.e. a jar) with a lid.