This article first appeared in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix on 23 Oct. 2006.
Saskatchewan may be a long way from the sea, but it’s just a little less than a mile away from sea salt. We could walk there if it weren’t straight down. But, since it’s buried 1.2 kilometres in the earth, we have to get our Saskatchewan sea salt from the grocery store.
Now, don’t go looking in the gourmet food section. This ancient sea salt is not pricey or rare. In fact, if you’ve purchased Sifto salt chances are you’re already using it. Sifto’s salt mine at Unity, in west central Saskatchewan, is tapping into a salt deposit more than 350 million years old. The salt was left behind after the evaporation of a huge inland sea, part of the same geological formation that produced potash. Put that in your salt shaker!
When I heard about the salt mine at Unity I called the manager, John Goschok, and asked for a tour. The first thing I noticed is that the place smells like salt. If I had been plunked down blindfolded, I might have guessed we were near the sea rather than the wide open plains. At the mine, hot water is forced down a pipe into the crusty salt below. The salt dissolves into a brine that is pumped up to the surface where it is heated in huge evaporators to remove the moisture. The result is pure white unadulterated salt.
"I chuckle to myself when I go to a health store and people are buying sea salt because it’s ‘natural’ and they’re paying a ton of money for it. Well, it all comes from the ocean at one point in time," says Goschok.
The mine produces about 50 different products from table salt to kosher and pickling salt, to road and water softener salt, to salt licks for livestock. Imagine the furor that would have caused in the Middle Ages, when so much salt was worth a king’s ransom. For most of human history, salt was an expensive commodity, often subject to state taxes. In fact, salt was so valuable throughout the ages that the Latin word ‘sal’ is the basis of our modern words salvation and salary.
Early one morning, shortly after my visit to the salt mine, I turned on the TV to a cooking show from France. I couldn’t understand much of the dialogue, but I could understand the pictures.
The chef took a whole fish, filled the cavity with herbs and sliced lemon, put it in a long narrow baking pan and covered it completely in rock salt. He baked it in a moderate oven (325 degrees C) for an hour or so.
I had a 2kg box of Sifto pickling salt and a northern pike from our friend, Ed. So, I decided to try it. Believe me, as I was pouring on that salt, I feared it was going to be a waste of both.
But when that fish came out of the oven 1.5 hours later, it was the most delicious and flavourful northern pike I had ever eaten. The salt had formed a crust like clay. The texture of the flesh had changed; it was moister and meatier, and it lifted right off those nasty bones. And it didn’t cost me an arm and a leg.
Here’s a good recipe for leftover fish.
Potato Fish Cakes
2 cups cooked potato
2 cups flaked cooked fish
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 tbsp. mixed herbs, chopped
(parsley, tarragon, thyme)
Fish stock or white wine
Flour for dusting
Fresh breadcrumbs for coating
Canola oil for frying
Mix the potato, fish, onion and herbs. I used a blender until they were the consistency of breadcrumbs. However, you could use a potato masher or even your hands. Add enough fish stock to moisten the mixture so you can form it into patties. (If you don’t have fish stock or white wine, use chicken stock or water.) Make 8 patties.
Dust each patty with flour. Dip into the egg. Then press each side into the breadcrumbs. Place the patties on a plate and refrigerate at least 30 min. This is essential to prevent them breaking up in the oil.
Heat the oil on medium high heat. There should be enough oil to rise half way up the patty. Fry the patties on each side until golden brown and drain on paper towel. Serve with lemon mayonnaise or your favourite sauce.