The salt pans sit on the sea beside the town of Piran, on the Istrian peninsula: an endlessly lovely scramble of terracotta-colored houses and miniature palazzi, spiked with two dramatic church bell towers, hugging the Slovenian coast. If it recalls a teacup-sized Venice, that is no coincidence—this was an outpost of the Venetian Republic for centuries. It has likewise been a center for the gathering of sea salt since the time of the Roman Empire, when salt was so valuable, as a flavor enhancer and preserver of meat, that it was sometimes used as currency (hence the word “salary”).
WHERE FLEURS DE SEL IS BORN
The principle of the salt pans is simple. Rectangular fences lock in portions of shallow seawater. The sun slowly evaporates the water, leaving the salt behind. It can then be pushed into piles, with large wooden toothless rakes (called a gaver), shoveled into wheelbarrows, and piled up on the shore, to dry further in the sun. These fleurs de sel are what appears on the top-most part of the salt flats.
The salt destined for other less refined purposes, such as fine-grinding, is harvested from layers below.
In this rawest form, salt is at its best, unadulterated, and called fleurs de sel. It’s the crème de la crème of condiments, with nothing in it but itself—no anticoagulants, not the product of extensive handling and exposure, as salt sometimes is when mined. This is just sea water minus the water, raked into place by a charming man in a surprisingly hipster-friendly striped bathing suit and an oversized sun hat that recalls the headgear of rice farmers.
A CENTURY-AGED FORMAT
Salt farmers are in short supply, it turned out, and I was lucky to find one at work when I visited. Charming, learned, multi-lingual Dario explained that the entire, elaborate bevy of salt pans is under-staffed. This sort of work is physically difficult and requires passion and enthusiasm to be any good at it. The result is that there are very few salt farmers remaining, and most of the staff are shipped-in laborers who perhaps lack the attention to detail and admiration for tradition that Dario wears proudly.
The format has not changed in centuries. Each farmer is assigned a series of six identically-sized salt pans. A stretch of railroad track runs between rows of pans and a small gurney rides along it. As the sun evaporates the water, piles of large-flaked sea salt, those precious fleurs de sel, remain behind, looking like over-sized snowflakes that, surreally, proliferate under the hot sun.
Farmers like Dario move from one of their pans to another, using a rake to push the salt flakes into piles. They load these piles onto the gurney, roll it along the track back to the stretch of terra firm behind their salt pans, and dump it into an enormous pile. There it remains, under the sun, for as long as it takes to get as dry as possible. It is then shoveled onto trucks and brought to the Piran Salt factory for packaging. Nothing else goes into it. It’s just saltwater, sun and Dario.
My companion on this visit, famous Slovenian chef Janez Bratovž, admits to using Piran fleurs de sel to finish an “abnormal” number of his dishes, and he cruises through many containers a week.
THE LIFE OF A SALT FARMER
Dario’s family has worked these same salt pans for four generations. And he bristles with wisdom, not just about salt farming. “If you want to do good work, you can’t be staring at the clock,” he says when I ask what a normal day for him would look like. He works as much as there is work to do, breaking only in the heat of midday.
The gathering season requires fine, sunny, hot weather—if there is rain, then there will be no salt to harvest because the sun will not have been powerful and present enough to burn away the water. So salt, like grains or fruit, is a seasonal harvest. He may work as late as 11 pm if there is work to be done. “This must be in your blood because you certainly won’t do it for the money.”
At the start of Dario’s row of six salt pans perches a shack. It has a narrow covered porch, facing the pans, fitted with a table. Inside is a wooden bench covered with a simple mattress, a mini fridge with some beverages, a cubbyhole for belongings. This is where Dario can sleep or rest and escape the sun.
He uses traditional equipment, as his great-grandfather would have used—likely used for centuries, if not millennia, of Dario's, since this very flat has been farmed for sea salt since the time of the ancient Romans. Because the salt crystals are jagged, they can cut bare feet, so the farmers use to wear something that looks like wooden platform flip-flops. The broad-brimmed hat and toothless rake are likewise implements of the ancients. The only nod to modernity, if you can call it that, is the set of rail tracks and the very 19th-century-looking gurney atop it.
Dario points to several rows of salt pans. “That row was my grandfather’s. That one my aunt’s. That one my father’s. We were all solinari, salt farmers.” In a good season, Dario can fill up 12 train wagons with salt, for around 120 tons. The factory expects, as a whole, to process 1500 tons over the course of a season. This is an unbelievably labor-intensive process, one which I imagine is mechanized elsewhere, but certainly not here. When he’s in the groove, and weather permitting, he’ll harvest 4000-5000 kg a day.
My appreciation for that pinch of salt to top my steak has just increased by some four-to-five-thousand a day.