Savoring Salt and Chocolate

Chefs are using unusual sea salts from around the world to flavor all sorts of food. Debbie Elliott talks to Seattle candymaker Fran Bigelow about her award-winning confection: a chocolate-covered caramel topped with smoked sea salt from Wales.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

To be a bonafide foodie these days you need to know the pedigree of your sodium chloride. Table salt just doesn't cut it anymore. Chefs now turn to: Hawaiian sea salt, tinted pink by volcano minerals; Maldon sea salt, from the marshes of England; or fleur de sel, hand harvested in the mud flats of Brittany. And you won't just find these sea salts on your grilled mahi-mahi. The most prestigious specialty food award this year was given to Fran's Chocolates of Seattle for its milk chocolate-covered caramels topped with smoked salt from Wales. We felt it our duty to sample them. Fran Bigelow joins us now from the studios of KUOW in Seattle.

Hello there.

Ms. FRAN BIGELOW (Fran's Chocolates): Hello, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: I must say, first of all, that these are beautiful. Let me just describe it for people. It's like a square candy like you might get in a nice box of chocolates, but across the top is just this sparkly crunchy salt right across...

Ms. BIGELOW: That's right.

ELLIOTT: ...the middle of it. It's almost looks like it could be snow-topped. And when you put it in your mouth it's just interesting and delicious. How did you come up with this particular combination?

Ms. BIGELOW: What I'm always looking for, as a chocolatier--we're looking for taste and the taste experience--a total experience. So I'm looking for fine chocolate. You know, it's got to have the aroma of chocolate. It's got to have mouth taste and texture. And the salt just adds to that and pushes all your flavors forward. The salt really wakes up your other tastes.

Chocolate's one of the most craved foods in the world, but we also crave salt. And it seems like the combination of the two has just struck a chord with so many people it's really unbelievable.

With this one that we get from Wales, I've met the founders of the company who hand harvest it. And then they smoke it over old Welch oak, which softens and sweetens the flavor of the salt, which almost sounds like a contradiction.

ELLIOTT: The salt sort of lingers a little bit, I think, after you eat the caramel. You know, you kind of have this aftereffect. It's very nice.

Ms. BIGELOW: Right. And taste--if it's layered and balanced like that, that's exactly what I'm looking for, to give people that lingering, lingering taste.

ELLIOTT: Now the idea of salt and sweet together is something that's been around for a while. Southerners have always put a little salt on their watermelon. It's really nice. Chocolate-covered pretzels have been around for a couple of decades now. But I'm curious. Do you get sort of some funny looks from customers when you say, `You've got to try this'?

Ms. BIGELOW: You do. I mean, you do. I mean, it just--it just sounds so strange. And they're not coming in, you know, to a chocolate shop to have anything with salt on it. But once they taste it, that's the one they're back for.

ELLIOTT: You also have a dark chocolate-covered caramel that comes with a different kind of sea salt on it. And we should point out that that one won the Outstanding Confection Award in 2003. Can you tell me about the salt on those?

Ms. BIGELOW: This--in this particular one we're using the gray sea salt from Brittany, and it has--the gray imparts more minerals than the white fleur de sel in there. It has a bolder and deeper flavor of the salt. You really taste the sea in this one, and it just heightened the contrast with the dark chocolate.

ELLIOTT: Now these kinds of gourmet sea salts are pretty expensive. Can most people really tell enough of the difference that they should start using these at home?

Ms. BIGELOW: Well, I think so. I think what you're doing is you're using them as a final garnish and flavor. You're grinding them on your food at the end. It just adds that spark to it. And I think it's all back to--we want something that has some kind of connection to us, and this you can really taste the connection to whoever has harvested it for you. We've started out with the artisan food movement; I mean, we've seen it move through coffee, wine, olive oil, vinegar. Now what we find in our stores is so much better than what we had 10 years ago. So I just think this is just part of that: salt from all over the world.

ELLIOTT: I think your PR person told us, `Salt is the new pepper.'

Ms. BIGELOW: Salt is absolutely where it's at.

ELLIOTT: Fran Bigelow, proprietor of Fran's Chocolates in Seattle, Washington. They also, by the way, make a chocolate-covered macadamia nut with smoked paprika. But that's a conversation for another time. Thank you for being with us.

Ms. BIGELOW: Thank you, Debbie. It was a pleasure to be here.

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