The Harvest of Sea Salt in the Camargue
On the southern edge of Arles, where the Rhône River splits into the Petit Rhône and the Grand Rhône, a triangle-shaped landmass has formed over the millennia, as the two tributaries have made their way to the Mediterranean. The Rhône River Delta, with her brackish marshes and fertile flatlands, is abundant with wildlife: turtles, otters, ferocious mosquitoes, wild bulls, pink flamingos and 400 other varieties of birds. Countless creatures thrive in this habitat – the most famous is certainly the Camargue horse, which has become a proud symbol of this land. They roam wild in the marshlands, their white manes flowing in the sea breeze.
The Camargue is Western Europe’s largest river delta at 930 square kilometers (360 square miles), and it’s home to charming beach towns cluttered with visitors, cattle ranches, horse farms, cowboys and cowgirls, vineyards, winemakers, rice paddies, farmers and even salt marshes, where tons upon tons of sea salt is harvested every year by sauniers (salt workers).
The name Aigues-Mortes rather unpleasantly translates to Dead Waters, so one is delightfully surprised to find walled within a medieval fortress a beautiful small city, full of all the charms of small-town Provence: cobblestone streets, sidewalk cafés, local gourmet ingredients and wines on offer at every corner. Aigues-Mortes is where the famous Baleine brand harvests sea salt.
Less than a kilometer outside of the walled city are Les Salins (the salt marshes). These marshes are vast, as big as Paris or 10,000 football fields. At this time of year, in the months before the rains start, when the salt is concentrated to 10 times that of sea water, the marshes turn pink. It is truly a beautiful sight to behold; these endless shallow lakes shimmer with a rose glow in the sunshine. Naturally occurring microalgae in the salt marshes, Dunaliella salina, produce keratin. These algae exist in the sea as well, but because no predators can survive to keep them in check here in the high saline waters of the Les Salins, they thrive.
Les Salins are controlled by a series of waterways, channels and dams. The salt fields are filled with water from the Mediterranean in the early spring, then when the days become longer and warmer, the evaporation begins. In August, as the water begins to turn pink, the sea-salt crystals form and sink to the bottom. As each Salins drains, gros sel (coarse salt) crystals are left behind, and the huge cakes of sea salt are harvested.
In July, there is an early harvest of Fleur de Sel (flowers of salt). These smaller crystals are hand-harvested before they are heavy enough to sink to the bottom of the Salins. Harvesting Fleur de Sel is more labor intensive and is therefore usually dearer in price than regular sea salt. Often mineral rich, it can be slightly gray in colour. These cherished young crystals add a delicious sea-saltiness to salads and, of course, are wonderful with seafood dishes.
Twenty-five or so kilometers from Aigues-Mortes is Saints Maries-des-la-Mer, the capital of the Camargue and perhaps her most beautiful coastal town, flanked with small beaches that stretch endlessly, one after the other. This vibrant tourist town has shops overflowing with local offerings: handmade ceramic dishware, locally crafted jewelry, Camargue rice, local wines and, of course, sea salt in a million different flavours, textures and packages.
Everywhere, too, is the Camargue Cross – the original is from the Church of Saints Maries-des-la-Mer. It incorporates an anchor, a heart and the trident-shaped tool used by bull-herders; it is seen everywhere, used in everything from architecture to key chains, and symbolizes the virtues of faith, hope and charity. This symbol also relates to the Camargue’s cultural legacy of cowboys and fishermen; it has become the emblem, the cattle brand of this rich land. The Camargue, this anomalous piece of Provence, has vast beauty, spectacular diversity and a character all her own.