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Sea Salt: Queen of Condiments

A fairy story told in many lands concerns a foodie princess who is exiled after angering her father, the king, by telling him she loves him as much as salt. She becomes a great chef and, unbeknownst to the old king, arranges for him to be served a lavish banquet prepared without salt.

You know the ending:

When the king complains that his meal is bland and tasteless without salt, his disguised daughter doffs her toque and reveals her identity. The scales fall from his eyes, they embrace in forgiveness and she takes the throne as queen.

The way to a human heart is not through the stomach, but the palate, and no mineral knows it better than salt. For thousands of years, humans have harvested salt from the seas, boiled it out of spring water and mined it from deposits left by ancient oceans, in order to flavor and preserve their foods and trade for goods from saltless lands.

In ancient times, salt was literally as good as gold: In some parts of Africa, salt slabs were exchanged as cash. The Roman empire coined the term salarium, or salt money, which became the modern word salary. InSalt: A World History,deep-dive reporter Mark Kurlansky has written an entire book about this essential element that has led nation-states to war and taxpayers to revolt.

Today, salt remains the queen of condiments and the age-old practice of harvesting sea salt continues around the world.

The Camargue and Guerande in France are among the most renowned salt-producing regions. Across the globe in Hawaii, red-orange and black sea salts are colored with minerals from local clay and charcoal.

Another black salt is Cyprus Flake, with its large, pyramidal crystals, which comes from the Mediterranean (not the Black Sea!) where it is dried in lava beds and colored with activated charcoal.

The flavors of these traditional sea salts are distinguished by minerals from the water and local sources. They don't contain the added salts of iodine that are mixed with most commercial salts, including some mass-marketed sea salts.

Gray salt, also called sel gris and Celtic sea salt, is our everyday favorite of the old world sea salts. Its sold in flakes or as the powder-fine Velvet de Guerande. The gray color comes from minerals on the bottom of the salt pan, where the moist crystals are raked up after the sun has evaporated the sea water.

Paler in color and considered a most elegant finishing salt, the crystals that make fleur de sel are raked more delicately: They do not touch the bottom of the salt pan. You can read more about the salt-harvesting process in our Aug. 14, 2014 column Salt of the earth.

We chose sel gris for this simple salad, to make the most of flavorful, juicy heirloom tomatoes while they are still in season. You can use any sea salt you like.

Get the recipe: Heirloom Tomato Salad with Sel Gris and Lavender