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High Season

How a precious and ancient resource elevates flavour from good to great.

Words by Hannah Tapping

James Strawbridge’s new book, Salt and the Art of Seasoning, demystifies the use of this everyday condiment, elevating it from a simple table addition to a key, vital ingredient. James explains: “I’ve always been struck by quite practical books. Most of the books I’ve written over the years have tended to be instructional and skill-based rather than following foodie trends. Salt is one of the seasonings we use every day, changing the way other food tastes.” Going against the grain of the narrative of salt being bad for you, James is at pains to make a distinction between the benefits of naturally occurring salt and the sodium chloride variety. While the chemical version, table salt, has no benefit, naturally occurring salt is a chef’s best friend. “However,” says James, “there’s often a gap of knowledge in that most chefs have an understanding of the importance of salt, but don’t necessarily know why this is so.

“Salt can be something of a passport to travel. In the same way you get a journey with spices, the same can be said from salts from around the world – each with a distinctively different flavour. I find it a very exciting ingredient, especially living in Cornwall. Being near the coast, you’re constantly splashed with sea brine as the wave crashes; or you taste foraged sea vegetables that have innate embodied salt; even the fish that’s caught here needs nothing more than a pinch of salt and a squeeze of lemon to really come alive. So, I think that as an ingredient it’s magical, almost alchemic in the way it takes an ingredient and instantly transforms its flavour.

“For example, while shop-bought unsalted butter can be fantastic for baking, you can’t beat homemade salted butter. Simply whisk double cream until it separates, add a pinch of sea salt to it and use to create amazingly tasty veg. We’re just coming into a really exciting time of year now. We’re about to say goodbye to asparagus, and welcome the tomato season. I can’t wait for those beautiful salads, and a pinch of salt is what can really make a difference to bringing out the innate natural flavour.”

Salt is not only a natural flavour enhancer, it’s also a natural preservative, and can be used to lengthen the time you can store fresh food. The art of salting is something that James goes into in detail in the book, as well as creating your own flavoured salts. “You can even make your own salt first,” explains James, “just out of sea water, and in terms of making your own flavour, it’s probably one of the most simple, straightforward but also satisfying things to do and preserves the flavour of the season. For example, wild garlic in Cornwall is just reaching the end of its season. The wild garlic flowers are incredibly fragrant; if you blitz them with salt or even some fresh mint, you have the most exquisite mint salt. You can do the same with any leftover spices, such as mace or nutmeg, perfect for adding during cooking or for finishing a dish at the table.”

A favourite dish for James has to be salted sardines: “I feel they unite us with local history and Cornish heritage via the pilchard industry; sustainably sourced, fished out of Mounts Bay, landed in Newlyn, you can’t get better. It’s a great way of almost stretching back in time but finishing the food in a modern way that links you to the past. Another favourite from the book has to be the rainbow pickle plate which is pretty radical. So, it’s basically taking whatever is fresh in the garden or allotment, pickling it using salt to absorb some of the moisture which keeps the veg crunchy, and then serving with a bit of butter and some extra seaweed salt – it’s just perfect as a palate cleanser or a light lunch.

“The book has been an opportunity for me to showcase some dishes that I love rather than trying to do fancy food. What I really wanted the book to do was to urge readers to truly embrace the notion of salt craft. I wanted to showcase salt skills and an understanding of what salt can do so that this could be applied to other family favourites in recipe book collections with a fresh perspective. I’ve deliberately kept the food honest and straightforward because it’s not so much about recipes this time for a change.

“Yes, it is a recipe book and hopefully there’s things in there that people will enjoy cooking, but it is more of an approach to cooking, with a little more theory involved. I wanted to capture some of the. romance around salt. It’s so evocative and has been incredibly important ritually over time. Its history is so rich, I wanted to make sure that it felt a bit like a love letter to salt.”


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