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Portuguese firm seeks to make salt seductive

As the sun begins to set on another scorching summer's day in southern Portugal, workers grab wooden poles tipped with nets and gently skim shallow salt pans, turning in slow, rhythmic movements that seem choreographed.
/ Source: The Associated Press

As the sun begins to set on another scorching summer's day in southern Portugal, workers grab wooden poles tipped with nets and gently skim shallow salt pans, turning in slow, rhythmic movements that seem choreographed.

Carefully scooping off a white crust, like frosting on a cake, they harvest a delicacy called flor de sal (literally, "flower of salt"), a prized — and pricey — condiment that will be dispatched to specialty stores around the world.

This centuries-old local salt business, however, faces a new global challenge: The economic downturn has sent shoppers into a frugal frame of mind.

Portuguese salt company Necton has responded with a counterpunch. It is slashing the price of flor de sal, its top-end item.

A 250-gram (8.8-ounce) jar of flor de sal, more commonly known by its French name fleur de sel, has traditionally retailed for around $14 (⁈ the U.S. and Europe. The hefty price tag makes it look less like salt and more like an extravagance.

But Necton is now selling 250-gram plastic sachets of its flor de sal at Portuguese supermarkets for just $2.50 (⁈ Luis Salas, the company's commercial director, says that trump card is helping put this aristocrat among salts on regular dining tables in Portugal.

Do the math, he says: using a few flakes at mealtimes means a jar can last a family a month, making it relatively inexpensive. Overseas, however, flor de sal's shelf price will depend on the markups by importers and retailers.

Necton claims to be the world's second-biggest producer, after the more famous Guerande cooperative in France's northwest Brittany region, which has long dominated the world market.

The French type of fleur de sel has a gray hue because rain stirs up the salt pans there. In southern Portugal, where rainfall is rare during the summer harvest season, the local flor de sal is snowy white.

Food connoisseurs rave about fleur de sel, crediting the creamy, moist flakes with unlocking flavors that make taste buds tingle.

International campaigns to reduce salt intake have underscored its health risks, making consumers wary. But Necton says this unrefined salt is good for you — containing micro-nutrients that should be part of a balanced diet, replacing the more common and less nutritious table salt.

"There's room for people to ... swap quantity for quality," said Joao Navalho, a biologist and one of Necton's founders.

Barbara Fairchild, editor-in-chief of U.S. food magazine Bon Appetit, says the market for these so-called finishing salts — ones used on already cooked food — has surged in recent years, though financial worries have lately dampened enthusiasm.

Portuguese flor de sal isn't as well-known as its French rival, but cutting the price could change that.

"The bottom line is the taste," Fairchild said. "If the taste is similar and the texture is similar, then why wouldn't I buy the one from Portugal?"

Necton produces 120 tonnes (132 U.S. tons) of flor de sal a year from its patchwork of salt pans over 27 hectares (67 acres) on Portugal's Algarve coast. Most of it is sold in Europe.

The growth in its production of flor de sal — up from 40 tonnes (44 US tons) in 2005 — reflects the increasing popularity in recent years of a product that once catered mostly to gourmets.

Nicolas Lescuyer, sales manager of Les Salines de Guerande, corroborates that trend, saying sales of its fleur de sel have increased every year for the past five years and its popularity "has never been so strong." The company has no plans to cut prices, he says.

Salt production has a long tradition on the southern Portuguese coast.

Historians conclude from archaeological evidence that this area also provided Romans with what then was a valuable commodity. The modern word 'salary' comes from the Latin words "sal," meaning salt, and "salarium," a payment made in salt, usually to Roman soldiers.

Centuries later, harvesting salt from the sea remains a low-tech, labor-intensive business. Refined salt, on the other hand, is mostly mined and industrially processed.

Plentiful sunshine and hot summers make the Algarve an ideal spot for the evaporation of salt pans. Seawater from the Atlantic passes through local marshland and gushes into the salt pans through sluice gates.

The rectangular salt pans are not much bigger than a king-size bed and are less than 30 centimeters (a foot) deep. Lined up in rows, they are hollowed out of the clay-rich soil that acts like a stopper, preventing the seawater from seeping away.

By 9 a.m., the sun already stings bare skin. The salt harvesters, called "marnotos" in Portuguese, walk along dykes with the long poles that look like snow-pushers resting on their shoulders.

They begin by scraping grainy sea salt left behind on the bottoms of the pans from the evaporating water. They pile it up in elongated, snowy mounds. By late afternoon flor de sal has started to form on the surface. It starts as wisps drifting over the salt pans and slowly thickens into crystals that resemble small white flowers.

The hardening surface is skimmed, like cream off milk.

"You need a light touch. You've got to have patience," says Maximino Guerreiro, a 56-year-old, second-generation salt harvester for more than 30 years.

Tipped into crates, the flor de sal is left to dry for up to five days.

Navalho, the biologist, reckons these traditional methods will help the flor de sal business plug into the market for natural products.

"It's got history, culture, something more than just industrial production," he says.


Associated Press writer Rachel Kurowski in Paris contributed to this report.