Joe is always trying to give me stuff. He is a generous and sweet-natured soul, and I cherish our relationship—even though it feels like I’m taking advantage. Over the years, he’s given me a beautiful tech-useful messenger bag, a set of quite useful kitchen knives, several bottles of seriously good bourbon. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve them—or him, for that matter.
On our last visit up to the Midlands to see him and TLC’s mum, he wanted to give me some salt. Bog standard, bulk-buy free-flow salt. The sort that comes in 750g containers the shape of which, if cast in steel, you could load into a howitzer and fire at the enemy.
Of course, I turned him down. Partly out of embarrassment at always being the taker, but come on, seriously. Why should I, a man of culinary taste and refined manners, allow horrible basic salt within a country mile of the hallowed ground that is my kitchen?
I have plenty of good salt. I love my salt. I am by birth an Essex boy, so there’s usually a box of Maldon’s finest on the counter. A current favourite is Sal de Portugal, a flaky soft salt in a sweet ceramic pinch pot. That, along with most of my saline solutions, comes from the savvy cook’s best kept secret—TK Maxx. If you need Himalayan pink salt, there are groaning shelf-fulls of the stuff. Then there’s the fancy blends and mixes the collector in me can’t resist. Old Bay seasoning, Montreal Steak blend, the stuff I make from dried mushrooms blended with Maldon and just a touch of MSG (which is something for a whole other blog post).
Salt is vital. You need a gram of it a day to live. It’s the first word in the title of Samin Nosrat’s bible of kitchen essentials. One of the worst crimes you can commit in Masterchef or Great British Menu is to under-season your food. One of the reasons restaurant food tastes so good? Much more salt than you’d consider feasible. OK, far too much butter and cream too, but good food needs a heavy hand with the salt pig.
Once upon a long ago, salt was so important that ownership of a decent stash was a sign of wealth and status. At the lord’s table, your place in the pecking order was predicated by where you were sitting in relation to the salt bowl, which was normally in the middle. If you were below the salt, you were on the same level of importance as livestock. Which brings back a childhood memory of an old Steeleye Span album my parents used to play regularly.
The salt at the lord’s table had value which was reflected in the work required to get it in that bowl. Similarly, my Maldon and Sal de Portugal costs much more than Joe’s howitzer-shell of salinity. But much of that cost nowadays comes down to processing and, let’s be frank, marketing. We expect to pay more for fancy salt in fancy packaging. Fundamentally, though, they are chemically identical to the stuff I throw in the dish-washer and water-softener. It’s all sodium chloride.
I was, as I hope some of you have realised already, not just being a snob when I refused Joe’s offer. I was an idiot. Why on earth should I use fancy finishing salts for every seasoning job in the kitchen? It’s wasteful and expensive.
If I want to build a dough for salt-crust baking a celeriac, some lamb or a whole sea bass, the free-flow stuff is fine. I could use piles of it to prop up delicate, wobbly items like oysters for a blast under the grill. Or for salting pasta water, ffs. In a worst case scenario, it would come in handy to de-ice the slippery bit by the front door. Whatever happened, I would be better off with the salt than without it.
Therefore, two minutes after turning down Joe’s offer, I came to my senses, humbly apologised and asked if it was still on the table. Fortunately, Joe was more of a gentleman than I had been. I accepted his gift with thanks. Then I made a promise not be such a moron in future.
The lesson to take from all this? Firstly and most importantly, get over yourself. Don’t assume you’re better than the gift. Chances are, it’s offered with love. You should never turn your back on that.
All ingredients have a purpose. It’s down to you, as a cook, to find what that may be. Stress-test your assumptions and prejudices. Don’t sneer at the basics. Play. Explore. Enjoy. Your food and your cookery will be all the better for it.