Since antiquity, salt has been harvested from the Mediterranean Sea. The conditions to do so are perfect in the South of France. Apart from space for the salt ponds, all you need is sun and wind. And we have plenty of that here in the south! One of those salt producers is on the Salin de l’Île Saint Martin, a piece of land situated right between Gruissan, the sea and the Étang d’Ayrolle.
As I had run out of coarse sea salt, I had to go and buy some more. Since I like to know where my food comes from and because I live close by, it has to come from Le Salin de l’Île Saint Martin. I decided to bring the family with me so that we could combine it with a guided tour. Upon arrival, we joined our lovely guide Emmeline for a walk around the salt ponds. We obviously didn’t visit the whole 400 hectares but had a walk around a few of them. It took us about 1 hour and 20 minutes to find out everything there was to know about salt harvesting.
The pink coloured water of the salt fields struck us immediately when we approached the salt ponds. These pink hues come from algae called ‘Dunaliella Salina’ that love living in a salty environment. Teeny, tiny shrimp-like larvae- the Artemia Salina- savour these algae and that makes the shrimps pink as well. So, the saltier the water gets, the pinker, even reddish the colour of the water gets. To complete the cycle of the food chain, the teensy shrimps serve as food for flamingos, hence their pink feathers.
We tested the saltness of the ponds personally. Emmeline let us taste the water, and we can confirm that it was very salty indeed! No wonder, as seawater contains 30 grams per litre, while the water in the salt pond consists of 250 grams per litre! Continuing on our way, we discovered that even in this salty environment plants can grow. So, of course, we had to taste a bit of wild Salicornia. A bit further along, we tried to catch some of the minuscule shrimps- the Artemia Salina ones. I thought they would be invisible to the eye, but you can actually see them. And catch them, to the delight of the kids. We loved doing this informative and interactive tour. It was great to learn and understand the art of salt-making by tasting and touching the natural elements.
Oysters and more
At Le Salin de l’Île Saint Martin, salt is harvested only once a year from August to September. This is the time when the Southern French wind ‘La Tramontane’ and the sun have evaporated all of the water allowing the salt crystals to appear. The so-called ‘sauniers’, or salt-workers, still harvest the gastronomic salt fleur de sel by hand. Besides salt, used for multiple purposes, oysters are also cultivated in the salt fields. This resulted in the presence of a restaurant, La Cambuse du Saunier, serving the freshest oysters and other shellfish and fish. And if you want to buy some nice souvenirs, don’t miss the gift shop! Here you can buy, well, salt in all sorts and flavours. It also hosts a little eco-museum (free entry). Even without the guided tour, you can easily spend a couple of hours at this unique place!