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Sea salt has been harvested for more than a thousand years on the Atlantic coast of France. The industry declined in the mid-20th century. But with foodies looking for ever-fancier ingredients, NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports the salt marshes are making a comeback.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: It's a summer evening on the island of Noirmoutier. As the sun shimmers on the rustling marsh grasses, Herve Zarka is raking in sea salt from shallow pools in his salt marsh. Zarka uses a simoussi, a 10-foot pole tipped with a flat board. Salt has been harvested this way since at least the seventh century, when Benedictine monks dug the canals that bring seawater into this marshland.
HERVE ZARKA: (Through interpreter) This is my little paradise. The sea is 50 yards away, and I'm working the land. That's the whole principle of this island really - a piece of land in the middle of the sea and to work with only the birds around you.
BEARDSLEY: Zarka explains how the canals feed seawater into a series of clay ponds. And as the water flows between the pools and evaporates, each becomes saltier than the last until the crystals form in the bottom. Zarka says Noirmoutier's salt industry was booming in the 1940s until refrigerators allowed people to preserve food with cold instead of salt. And consumers began to demand pure white refined salt for their tables.
JESSICA TESSIER: (Speaking French).
BEARDSLEY: On another side of the island, 32-year-old Jessica Tessier and her father Jean Pierre are working in their family salt marsh. She grew up here, left for college and a job in Paris then decided to return and continue the work of several generations. Tessier remembers being out in the salt marshes when she was a little girl.
TESSIER: My grandfather was producing salt. And he used to make little tools for me - so just adapted to my size. So I had those little tools with which I tried desperately to harvest some salt.
BEARDSLEY: Noirmoutier's salt began to make a comeback in the 1990s with the renewed focus on fresh, local food. Famous French chefs touted the mineral properties of natural sea salt and sprinkled their best dishes with fleur de sel.
(SOUNDBITE OF WATER TRICKLING)
BEARDSLEY: Fleur de sel, which translates as salt flower, is a fragile salt crystal that Tessier is skimming from the surface with a special tool called a lousse.
TESSIER: It's like a thin layer of ice on icy water, if you see. So it's really thin, and it's really made under the action of wind and sun. And the particles of salt just stay at the surface of the water, like if you're creaming some really creamy milk.
BEARDSLEY: Fleur de sel fetches 20 times the price of the coarse sel raked up from the bottom, allowing salt makers to earn a decent living. But rain can ruin an entire salt harvest.
(SOUNDBITE OF CARRIAGE BELLS JINGLING)
BEARDSLEY: The return of Noirmoutier's salt industry is also a boon for tourism. When he's not raking salt, Herve Zarka takes groups of tourists into the marshes in a horse-drawn carriage.
ZARKA: (Speaking French).
BEARDSLEY: On a recent afternoon, Zarka tells them about the three things that have revolutionized an industry that's hardly changed for centuries - the rubber tire, which allowed wheelbarrows into the marshes without sinking into the clay; new materials that have lightened traditional heavy wooden tools; and smartphones that let every salt maker know when it's going to rain.
Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Noirmoutier, France.
(SOUNDBITE OF CORDUROI'S "LIKE GENTLE GIANTS")
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