GUERANDE, France – The region of Guerande in western France has long been known for its salt-producing marshes but in recent years its commitment to environmental and high-quality production devoid of chemicals has catapulted its salt to gastronomic fame.
The vast salt lakes on the Atlantic coast produce some 10,000 tons of the mineral every year in a precise operation that is overseen by around 330 workers.
“Guerande salt is rich in trace elements, harvested traditionally and not mechanized, all without inputs according to methods that are thousands of years old,” said Thierry Giraud, a salt worker in his sixties.
“The process is unique to the area because the harvest takes place “on a clayey, malleable and waterproof bottom,” Giraud added.
The method is largely natural, with plentiful water and sun being the main production elements, unlike for many salt plants in the south of the country that use additives to produce industrial salt, the expert said.
Although the ingredients that go into Guerande salt are minimal, the irrigation of the marshes is precise and managed by a series of basins where the shallow water pools evaporate to reveal the mineral.
Farmers were reaping the benefits of the lagoons as early as the 3rd century, when Roman settlements conquered the area.
Nowadays the marshes have experienced a large volume of young men flocking to the farm to learn the traditional techniques.
Cedric Leray, a man in his thirties, left his job to be trained up by his uncle Giraud in the art of salt production.
He told EPA that he enjoys the manual aspect of the labour, as do many of the other men and the small percentage of women who have joined the team.
The salt farms’ yield is 100% organic and this commitment to producing a high-quality product has meant Guerande salt has earned the coveted Red Label, meaning it is considered superior quality.
It is the only sea salt to boast this tag.
But the process, as well as being arduous, is dependent on the elements.
“Rain can extinguish the crystallization process and marine pollution such as oil spills are also a risk,” Giraud said.
The workers use two different techniques to harvest coarse salt and salt flower.
Coarse salt, which presents a larger grain size in a grey hue, produces high daily yields.
Salt flower is much finer, has a crisp texture, is snow white and is considered to be of higher quality than the coarse variety. It is also more expensive.
Unlike coarse salt, the flower hovers on the surface of the water and has to be skimmed off the top of the marsh in the evening before disappearing at night.
The traditional harvesting techniques are woven into the complex biodiversity of the area, and the efforts of salt workers contribute to safeguarding a fragile environment that is home to many species of migratory birds that nest in the area.
The region has many endangered floral species and the respectful way in which harvests are overseen contributes to their protection, something the workers are very proud to be a part of Giraud added.