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Last week I wrote about the incredible cowboy culture of the Camargue region of France, but today I’m talking a little bit more about why I visited that area in the first place. I went to the Camargue as part of a press trip for La Baleine, the iconic French sea salt brand, which just celebrated its 90th anniversary this year. La Baleine is the top brand of culinary sea salt in France, and they operate as part of the Compagnie des Salins du Midi, which has been in operation since 1856. You’d probably recognize them by their tall blue salt canisters and whale logo, which has evolved over the years (my favorite is this one from the 1970s), but was originally designed by the same illustrator of the La Vache qui Rit (Laughing Cow) cheese logo.

La Baleine harvests four million tons of salt each year, much of it from the Salins d’Aigues-Mortes, the beautiful pink salt marshes in the Camargue. These salins, which take up 8,000 hectares (the size of Paris!), are unlike anything you’ve ever seen. They look like something out of a fairytale, large cutouts of pink water lapping up against the network of salty, sandy paths that cut through the marshes. Some have a subtle rosy tint, like the reflection of a sunset, while others are as pink as the flamingos that populate the salt marshes. In some places, the salt gathers in fluffy clumps like sea foam along the shore, while in others, it crystallizes on the surface of the water like sheets of ice.

Closer to the factory where the salt from the salins is processed, enormous piles of salt spring from the earth, looking for all the world like snow-covered mountains. It was a jarring optical illusion, this ersatz Arctic landscape glittering in the thick June humidity.

But if the salt itself is snow white, then why are the waters it is harvested from so pink? 

This unique coloring is caused by a beta-carotene-rich algae called Dunaliella Salina, which is also used in skin creams and serums by the French beauty brand Eclaē. The algae is eaten by tiny shrimp in the water, the largest of which are no longer than a centimeter, and these shrimp are then eaten by the flamingos that live in the marshes. During their breeding season, the male flamingos store the beta-carotene coloring in a special gland, and then wipe it on their wings to give them vibrant color in hopes of attracting a mate. So apparently this algae’s cosmetic applications run deep!

This group of 30,000 flamingos, the largest in Europe, can only exist because the area is both a protected natural environment, as well as an industrial one. If salt production ceased, the marshes would dry up, and the flamingos would have nowhere to hunt for shrimp. So the entire ecosystem there exists in a perfect balance between human activity and thriving flora and fauna.

The salt marshes are overseen by sauniers, or salt harvesters, who control the flow of sea water from the Mediterranean into this enormous network of canals. They monitor the levels of evaporation in the different sections of the salins, and the mineral levels of the salt there, particularly magnesium. This is especially important for fleur de sel, which requires higher magnesium levels to form. With its clean, briney flavor, and moist, yet crunchy texture, fleur de sel is a premium style of salt used to finish dishes. My favorite way to enjoy it is on top of rich chocolate desserts, or luscious pieces of caramel, but it can be used to elevate something as simple as bread spread with good French butter.

Fleur de sel, whose name comes from the French expression à fleur d’eau (at the water’s surface), forms a crust on top of the water in the salt marshes that must be harvested by hand. (Regular sea salt forms a thick “cake” below the water, which is collected with machines.) Fleur de sel is only harvested in July and August over a period of six to seven weeks, by a small team of twelve to fifteen workers, usually the sons and nephews of the year-round sauniers.

It’s a tough gig, in high heat, working through throngs of mosquitoes. Though we were there too early for the fleur de sel harvest, for photo-op reasons, they allowed a few of us into the salt marshes to pretend-shovel salt into tall piles. (Pics here.) Now, I’m no body builder, but the salt was so heavy I could barely lift it above the water. (It probably didn’t help that Luke, the head saunier, cheekily handed me one of the largest shovels, which could have easily held a gallon of water.) I can tell you for sure that I would not want to be one of the young men tasked with handling this precious cargo under the blaring Mediterranean sun. But I certainly appreciate their hard work, and the supremely tasty results of it.

Catherine Rickman

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