A September morning and the sun, high in the sky, beats down on the Île de Ré. Near the pretty town of Ars en Ré, the marshes shimmer like mirages, stretching across a wide, flat expanse bordering the Atlantic. I’m relishing the Indian Summer with a visit to the Coopérative des Sauniers de l’Île de Ré.
Since the 12th century, the sauniers (salt farmers, or salt workers) have harvested coarse sea salt from the salt marshes. It’s an artisanal craft, as all the salt is gathered by hand. Today Hervé Rault is showing me the technique, passed down to him by his grandfather. Balancing the simousi—the wood tool which resembles a rake—is no easy feat. In fact, there’s an entire school devoted to learning the craft in Nantes.
The marsh is divided into rectangular plots, or pools, where the water level is carefully controlled via a canal system. As the water evaporates in the sun, the pool becomes a concentrated brine where the sea salt crystallises, full of mineral-rich algae and beneficial minerals found in the clay.
Hervé pulls the rake across the water in brisk, even strokes, then gathers the salt into a conical pile at the edge of the pool. With the edge of his rake, Hervé flicks out the residual mud and dirt. All that’s left is the perfect product.
It’s painstaking work.
As far as the eye can see, the uniform pyramids of salt are assembled at the edge of the pools. Later, these piles will be picked up and carted by truck to the cooperative.
Today the cooperative brings together 60 sauniers who pool their talent to optimise the production and sale of the salt. The salt is sold directly from the cooperative, and makes a great gift for gourmands. Along with bags of coarse grey salt, you’ll find seasoned salts, boxes of fleur de sel, caramels made with butter and sea salt, plus galets de sel, or “salt pebbles” which are practical for cooking (as it’s the perfect dose of salt to add to a pot of boiling pasta water).
Hervé points to the edge of the pond, where a delicate sheen of fleur de sel crystals are starting to appear. This is the white gold that’s prized by the country’s top chefs, as the final touch to a prepared dish. Dipping my finger to taste the precious crystals, I’m reminded of that swoon-worthy Lindt chocolate bar studded with fleur de sel. There’s something about that small hint of fine salt that brings out the flavour in the chocolate.
As his grandfather before him, Hervé is preserving a centuries-old savoir-faire. The saunier is like an alchemist, harvesting a beautiful element from nature. A beau métier indeed.
Coopérative des Sauniers de l’Île de Ré, 7 route de la Prée, 17590 Ars en Ré. Tel: +33 05 46 41 25 72