Rupert Bates Autumn 2022
My research into the global authority on salt and pepper when it comes to BBQ cooking wasn’t exhaustive. But I think when you discover a chef and author who has penned three books called Salt, Pepper and Salt & Pepper, there is no need to look any further.
For good measure Valerie Aikman-Smith has also written a cookbook titled Feast from the Fire. Talk about seasoned professional. She even cooked on the Titanic, which I initially took with a pinch of salt.
Valerie Aikman-Smith is a true culinary polymath, chef, food stylist, consultant and writer and other books in her repertoire include Pickled & Packed and Smoke & Spice.
Based in Los Angeles, Valerie knows every nuance of American barbecue, urging me to make a road trip of the southern states where the BBQ joints and restaurants “will blow your mind.”
But life and fire food started for Valerie on the west coast of Scotland in North Ayrshire, raised in the seaside town of Largs. “I’ve loved cooking since the age of eight. Mum gave me free rein in the kitchen, as long as I cleaned up afterwards!”
Her dad was a keen sailor. But when not racing competitively, the family would fish off the boat before grilling the catch – “invariably mackerel” – on the shore. “My early memories were campfire cooking on the beach.”
Valerie left Scotland aged 18 and her cooking journey has taken in Greens restaurant in San Francisco and Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. While the experiences honed skills, the restaurant business wasn’t for her and, with her husband in the film business, food styling eventually took centre stage.
Valerie’s first film was James Cameron’s Titanic, which I guess allows her to say she cooked for Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. But it also meant cooking and styling food and tables for hundreds of extras in the ship’s dining room – only for it to be flooded.
“It was incredibly hectic, but amazing to be a part of and fascinating to research the dining etiquette and food of the time.”
The likes of Ocean’s Eleven and Vanilla Sky followed and Valerie has cooked and styled her way across the world, working in film, television and for numerous blue chip clients on promotions, advertising campaigns and events.
Books were a natural progression and recipes with salt and pepper as the unsung heroes are sprinkled over her library. Salt and pepper have always been in cooking, as a seasoning or finishing, but we are only just embracing their versatility and maybe have not accorded them the respect they deserve.
“With meat you need salt to get the full flavour from the meat. Cooking with flame is hardcore, so it needs to stand up to that and salt is a way of tenderising meat too,” says Valerie.
“We’ve become more curious, the more we’ve become exposed to different foods and cooking cultures. Salt and pepper are no longer just those mundane condiments on the table. The variety now is extraordinary.”
We season, preserve, bake, cure, brine, pickle and make rubs from salt, harvested from land and sea. Valerie says salt has been a prized possession since the beginning of civilisation, even as a currency with wars fought over it.
“In China, salt tax revenues were used to build the Great Wall. The Greeks and the Mayans worshipped their gods with salt offerings. Roman soldiers were given an allowance of salt called ‘salarium’ where the word salary comes from. At one time salt was so precious it was traded ounce for ounce with gold,” says Valerie in the introduction to her book Salt & Pepper.
Valerie is passionate about BBQ food and outdoor cooking, and with it all the different forms of seasonings and sauces. She has an Argentinian grill at home and loves the idea of cooking in the desert – she lives in California’s Coachella Valley – using the ingredients to hand, be it mesquite flowers or prickly pear cactus.
Rock salt – “perfect when cooking with a salt crust”; pink salt flakes from the Murray River in Australia; Himalayan salt hand-picked in Nepal – “fun to have in a block and grate over food”; smoked salts smoked with flavoured wood chips such as hickory; Hawaiian black lava sea salt and red alaea sea salt for garnishing; sel gris hand-harvested from the bottom of the salt flats in Guerande, France; fleur de sel, also from France; even Jurassic salt from Dorset. The list is endless.
What about pepper? Always after the ampersand, it is anything but the poor relation and was once heralded as the ‘king of spices’.
“Alongside salt and other spices, historically pepper played a powerful role in shaping trade routes around the world and creating wealth for the spice merchants,” says Valerie in Salt & Pepper.
She praises peppercorns’ “arsenal of flavours” and advocates stirring freshly ground white pepper into a Bechamel sauce to drizzle over pan-roasted fish. “Add a little heat to curries and stir fries by using crushed Szechuan peppercorns. Season thick-cut steaks with robust Tellicherry pepper.”
Valerie name checks green peppercorns from southern India, Sansho from Japan, pink pepper originally from the French island of Reunion, Indonesian Lampong black peppercorns, or pepper smoked in hickory, mesquite or bourbon “working really well in rubs, marinades and sauces”.
Salt and pepper can make a dish and also save a dish. Valerie will always taste before adjusting the seasoning but is not precious about whether you like a little or a lot of it. Non-judgemental, it is all about personal choice.
Pass the salt and pepper please. Which flavour? What colour? What strength? Which country? Whose culture? After sitting across the Atlantic dining table from Valerie Aikman-Smith, I am now spoilt for choice and will never take those cellars and mills for granted ever again.
Salt & Pepper by Valerie Aikman-Smith is published by Ryland Peters & Small.
“At Blackthorn, our simple goal is to make the best salt we can in terms of flavour and crystal quality, but also provenance and sustainability, here on the west coast of Scotland. By using the natural forces around us, Blackthorn captures all that we were looking for,” says Whirly Marshall, who co-founded the business with husband and master salter Gregorie Marshall.
“The idea is that Blackthorn is not a salt with an ego – one that makes your food taste salty per se – but rather one that really works hard to draw out the best of the flavours that is held within each mouthful, making the food taste of itself, but a clearer and better version, shouting flavour rather than salt.”
Every crystal comes from pure seawater, gathered locally, and evaporated on the only working thorn tower in the world. This immense structure, straight out of a gothic fairy tale, harnesses the power of the Ayrshire coast wind and sun to dry off most of the water content using zero man-made energy in the process, with 24,000 litres out of every 26,000-litre batch simply vanishing in the wind.
The seawater is trickled down and around the tower through a system of 54 wooden taps which are adjusted according to the weather, temperature, humidity, wind direction and strength of any given day.
“We are left with 2,000 litres of super-strength crystal-ready brine for the pan house. By reviving this ancient method with some modern tweaks, we make Blackthorn in a sustainable and uniquely tasty way. The Blackthorn itself imparts tannins and earthiness so that by the time the once seawater, now concentrated brine, goes to the pan house, it is amber coloured, filled with marine minerals as well as sodium chloride,” says Gregorie Marshall, with his family involved in the salt business for five generations.
In the pan house is where salter Malky McKinnon, born and raised on the Ayrshire coast, works his alchemy, retaining as many of those natural minerals as possible.
“Ironically, when it comes to salt, ‘pure’ is not great and it is all about what is not sodium chloride: everything else, the trace elements and minerals provide all the character and complexity. So Malky ensures that in every Blackthorn crystal there is potassium and magnesium for the bitter and sour, calcium for the sweet, sodium for the salty and then tannins and earthy blackthorn for the complexity and highlight savoury umami.”
The magnesium is particularly difficult to capture as it is hygroscopic and doesn’t want to be separated from water and days are spend over the hand-hot brine coaxing out the crystals. At the right moment they are harvested off, before they become too thick, brittle or large.
“There are no chemicals or industrial processes involved; no bleaching, boiling, seeding or adding, just a lot of time, thought and skill. In fact, if we are disappointed with a batch because it doesn’t measure up for some reason – a wee bit brittle or fine - we will recycle it back into the thorn tower to be reincarnated within the next batch. Little is wasted.”
“Many have found that they do not use as much salt with Blackthorn, despite it not being exactly salty. Others prefer to use it generously, dry brining as well as finishing in order to maximise the effects that it can have and do justice to meats and fish. Dry brining before cooking weakens proteins inside the meat and, weirdly, helps maintain moisture as they cook. The meat should also be more tender. We find a longer resting period, before and after cooking, allows Blackthorn to penetrate the muscle structure more which helps it to really pull out all the intensity of flavour, with the salinity cutting the richness of fattier, richer meats.”
Blackthorn has salt-baked on the BBQ to great effect, as well as simply sprinkling pre- and post-grilling to amplify often more delicate notes, recommending scattering the salt on scallops and clams, with a touch of butter or lime.
“A popular simple go-to is BBQ grilled corn on the cob – the salt transports it, pulling out that sweetness, but the freshness too, and the starchy earthiness, which can often be lost. Tomatoes are a given – just the perfect mouthful, grilled with Blackthorn and little else – but also asparagus and aubergine sliced, drizzled with good olive oil and a touch of salt.”
Blackthorn is currently working with Zero Waste Scotland on increasing its use of solar as well as heat recycling, while reusing and repurposing where it can. “We are completely obsessed with salt, its history and importance, locally, globally and culturally, so there will always be elements of that in what we do, and we will always be learning. We are also determined to always enquire of ourselves and others whether what we are doing is right and best from a moral and environmental stance as well as a business necessity.”
BoTree is a family-owned purveyor of 100% organically produced single-origin spices and other seasoning products.
The business was founded by brothers-in-law Peter Schaebbicke and Christopher Gow, working between Scotland and Cambodia, with Christopher having settled in Cambodia, where he learnt all about the world-famous pepper-growing region of Kampot, which produces the only PGI-rated pepper in the world.
In the 1970s all regional pepper crops were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. Decades later, Kampot pepper was experiencing a farmer-led renaissance. Christopher and wife Aly were inspired by the traditional, sustainable farming practices that produced exquisite pepper.
Christopher spoke constantly about Kampot pepper to Peter, whose lifelong appreciation for the art of seasoning was instilled by his father, a top chef at London hotels. His obsession with ingredients and produce, as well as fine dining cultivated Peter’s love of exceptional food.
“When the opportunity came to start an ethical seasoning company as a family, I happily said goodbye to my career in tech sales and BoTree was born, taking its name from the Bodhi tree overlooking the family pepper farm,” says Peter Schaebbicke.
The first harvest took place in 2015 and shipments of Kampot pepper were vacuum-packed to arrive at the family home in Perth, Scotland as fresh as the day they left the farm. There, the whole family prepares customer orders and sends them off to kitchens worldwide.
“BoTree has grown exponentially since then, extending our range of organic spices to include gourmet seasoning from smallholder farmers across the globe. The company is on a mission to bring the world’s finest seasoning to every foodie’s table, while combining our passion for flavour with quality and sustainability.”
BoTree produces black, red and white pepper on the family farm in Kampot.
Black Kampot Pepper, having won three stars at the Great Taste Awards, is renowned for its citrusy aroma and intense heat. Red Kampot Pepper is a more mature berry, creating a sweeter, almost fruity note with a well-rounded, fleeting heat that lingers on the palate, while White Kampot Pepper has a zesty, nutty flavour with an underlying heat that just keeps going – mildest of the bunch, but still fresh and vibrant with a punchy heat.
Kampot Fleur de Sel is an excellent finishing salt, laced with a complex salty flavour. The fragile structure of sea salt blossom reveals a fine crunch in the mouth, creating a sweet salt experience.
“The key to BBQ rubs and marinades is to get the perfect balance of salt, heat and sweet flavours. Pepper is used to awaken the taste buds and enhance the flavours – and Kampot Pepper will keep your taste buds awake longer.”
Robust Black Kampot Pepper pairs exceptionally well with a meaty steak, while the Red works with softer meats such as pork, lamb and fish, due to its sweeter flavour profile. Kampot Fleur de Sel partners will grilled meat and fish too, due to its coarse grain sparkly crystals, which allow for a thick crust for a BBQ rub.
“Almost everywhere in the world, when we sit down at a dining table or in a restaurant, we are met by two ubiquitous seasonings: salt and pepper. Salt is used to turn up the volume of salty food or dial down the volume of bitter tasting foods. It also binds with the fat in meat and fish to create the perfect tasting sensation. Pepper is used to awaken and open up our taste buds and add sensitivity to our taste receptors so we can experience more flavour from our food. That’s why salt and pepper are the kings of seasonings, used in almost every cuisine around the world.”
Cornish Sea Salt is harvested fresh from the sea, just eight metres from its Salt House on the Lizard Peninsula, Cornwall. Founded in 2004 on the south Cornish coast, its signature blue pots sit as happily in Michelin-starred establishments as they do on the tables of home cooks, who appreciate not only the taste and quality of artisan sea salt, but the versatility and creativity it can bring to cooking.
Drawn from the unique properties of Cornwall’s clear ocean waters, the diverse range of sea salts are hand-harvested to deliver maximum flavour, with over 60 naturally occurring minerals, as well as being naturally lower in sodium than table salt. These Grade A waters possess a distinct mineral profile, thanks to the area’s unusual rock geology.
“From its core range of sea salt crunchy crystals and soft finishing flakes to the ever-evolving, deliciously blended seasonings and the deep umami tastes of its seaweed salts, Cornish Sea Salt can suit the everyday amateur as well as the seasoned chef,” says Philip Tanswell, managing director of Cornish Sea Salt.
Cornish Sea Salt Original Crystals are moister and chunkier than flakes and stay crunchy for longer, adding a burst of zesty mineral flavour to sweets and bakery products such as brownies, ice cream and salted caramel, as well as salads and roasted vegetables. The Original Crystals are also ideal for toppings on fish and meat, combined with fresh herbs and breadcrumbs.
In contrast, Cornish Sea Salt Flakes are more delicate with a mineral-rich flavour that initially hits the palate and withdraws to enhance other ingredients. The flakes are ideal as a centrepiece for use as a condiment or as a finishing salt on most dishes. Sprinkle onto cod or haddock fillets before cooking or top scallops with butter and sea salt flakes before grilling. They will also melt more easily, making them particularly good in sauces, marinades or herby rubs on meat.
Cornish Sea Salt also has blended flavoured salts, from Fresh & Zesty Lemon and Thyme to Really Garlicky, Chilli Hit to Smoked, as well as its Salt & Peppery combination. Scrunch and sprinkle on scrambled eggs or mix with butter to create a quick sauce or to rub into meats, such as steak, while Smoked Flakes help to make great crackling.
“Whether you are using one of our core range salts or a seasoning blend, a good sea salt makes BBQ food taste amazing. You can use salt in all stages of the cooking process. From a marinade to create an intense flavour and seasoning, or as a finishing touch to add some salty bursts,” says Philip Tanswell.
“We use a lot of our seasoning blends when barbecuing, like our Lemon Pepper blend on fish for a fresh but flavoursome finish, or a homemade butter with our Really Garlicky salt to smother on prawns or maybe corn on the cob. Our ultimate BBQ salt though has to be our Smoked Sea Salt Flakes. The natural freshness of salt combined with a subtle barbecue tang has a transformative effect on food, intensifying savouring flavours as well as adding to the flame-grilled taste of an open fire. Rub on to any meat or fish to create a deep smoky and salty flavour when barbecuing.”
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