Long Reads

The Island in Spain Where Salt Is Like Gold

Mining for sal de coco with my Mallorcan in-laws.

November  7, 2018
Photo by Caitlin Gunther Raux

Mallorca is a special place for me. “I’ve been there!” I exclaimed on the night I met my future husband, Guillaume, when he told me his mom was from Mallorca—though I left off the bit about having gone with an ex-boyfriend. It’s where we got engaged, after a boat ride to a tiny island at sunset. It’s where we got married, inside a horse stable on my in-law’s finca. And most recently, it’s where we moved to open a pop-up sandwich shop.

I’ve lived in Spain a few times before, and though each time I leave with no intention of returning, I find myself, for one reason or another, drawn back in. This long-term relationship I have with Spain has always been more of a love triangle—me, Spain, and our attractive third partner: Spanish food. It’s the glue that's kept us together over the years, even when we haven't see each other for months at a time. Like a moveable feast, I can take the Spanish recipes I've learned and prepare them wherever I go.

Having worked as both a cook and food writer in Spain, in Bilbao and Madrid respectively, I’ve prided myself on becoming knowledgeable of the local food scenes wherever I’m living. And as socializing typically revolves around food—meeting for tapas at night or organizing hours-long lunches en casa on Sundays—the legwork was generally light. In Bilbao, you couldn’t avoid becoming somewhat of an expert. Enter any bar and you’ll discover the vast world of pintxos, a handful of the most delicious local ingredients and the best wines to drink with (usually txakoli).

In my new home, Mallorca, I found myself struggling to really dig into the food culture. Sure, I was familiar with sobressada, the prized charcuterie, and ensaïmadas, the famed coiled pastries, made with pork fat, or saïm. I knew that Mallorcans take advantage of summer tomatoes with dishes like pa amb oli—bread rubbed with tomatoes, then finished with olive oil and salt. But I wanted to know more. Phoenicians, Romans, Jews, Arabs, and mainland Spaniards have all called Mallorca home. That had to mean a rich and varied cuisine, right? I wanted to peel back the next layer of the onion.

To begin my deep dive into Mallorcan food, I figured I’d begin with the basics—in fact, the most basic element of any cuisine: salt. Owing to the island’s combination of abundant sunshine, low daytime humidity, and a gentle Mediterranean breeze, Mallorca has been home to salt production since the Roman days. That flaky salt Caesar was sprinkling on his bruschetta? Mallorcan. Maybe. What’s for sure is that Colonia de Sant Jordi and Ses Salines, two neighboring towns in the southeast of Mallorca, have been famous for their commercial productions of salt in the “salinas,” or salt mines for centuries. It’s a salt nowadays known as flor de sal, or "flower of salt"—so called for the dainty, floral shape of the crystals.

Guillaume’s mother was born and raised in Ses Salines, and their family has collected salt by hand from the rocky coastline for as long as she can remember. As opposed to the commercially produced, this salt is called sal de coco. The first time I visited Guillaume in Paris, during our brief engagement, I made us avocado toasts on the most perfect Polaine sourdough bread. He offered me a wooden bowl of salt—flakes of all sizes, speckled with tiny imperfections like dried slivers of seaweed.

This long-term relationship I have with Spain has always been more of a love triangle—me, Spain, and our attractive third partner: Spanish food. It’s the glue that's kept us together over the years, even when we haven't see each other for months at a time.

“It’s sal de coco from Mallorca,” he told me. “We never use anything else.” Then he explained how his family collects it every year when they go to Mallorca for summer holidays. I thought back to my own childhood vacations on Long Beach Island and the kind of things we collected—salt water taffy and homemade fudge so rich it gave you a stomachache if you ventured beyond two small pieces. Collecting salt to use for the entire year seemed much more primal; so much cooler.

Determined to take part in this ancient right of passage, I asked to go with my mother-in-law, the Mallorca native who could show me the proper technique, and no doubt would have the best anecdotes about salt collecting. She had already shared one with me about how her grandparents used to collect salt, but as salt flakes at that time didn’t have the same gourmet stamp of approval, they thought it was "low quality." So instead they used it to kill weeds in their garden and saved expensive salts from the commercial salt mines for their dining table. I thought about how my family had done the same for our lawn in the Catskills—except we used iodized table salt, the kind that came in a cylinder and poured from a spout. I wondered what other things we might be poo-pooing, that someday we’d look back on and wonder why. Cow's milk? White sugar? Mountain Dew?


Though we agreed to go salt collecting early in the morning—before I began work at the sandwich shop—there were several hurdles between us and our plan. The first was a formidable one: Spanish culture. My mother-in-law, Teresa, is a true Spaniard. I remember the first time we met, Guillaume and I pulled into their driveway in Mallorca, and wearing a tunic and a luminous olivey tan, she immediately diffused every bit of my nervousness with her warmth. “Welcome,” she said in English and kissed me on both cheeks, then showed me around the property.

Teresa loves late dinners with many guests—the more, truly the merrier. She loves the sobre mesa—that lazy after-dinner time, where everyone sits around the table and chats, and people only stand to open another bottle of wine or get fresh ice for gin and tonics. “Qué mas...” she'll typically say at any pause in conversation. What else should we talk about? The pauses never last—there’s always more to discuss.

Teresa also loves her some sleep. She's known to sleep past 10, and even takes a siesta sometimes. My own mom back in New York often sends me WhatsApp messages at 6 a.m. EST: “Just waking up, how r u?” she’ll write. We're not big sleepers in my family.

A charming host and strong sleeper, Guillaume takes after his mother. I tend to be more like Guillaume's father, Bertrand, a Normandy native who's punctual and asks practical questions: How many people are coming to dinner? And: What time will we eat? While Guillaume and Teresa are on one side of the outdoor kitchen (or chiringuito), telling stories and pouring cocktails, Bertrand and I are on the other side, chopping onions and counting plates. Needless to say, making early morning plans with my mother-in-law was somewhat of a challenge.

Teresa. Photo by Me

Then, another hurdle popped up: After an endlessly hot and dry summer, it finally rained, washing away the rock salt. I decided to take advantage of the natural setback and do some research with my old pal, Google. With a coffee and my iPad, I sat outside our sandwich shop one afternoon, reading about the history of salt harvesting, when a family friend, Racco, walked by. Originally from Bulgaria, Racco has been living in Mallorca for 10 years. He drives a taxi and keeps pigeons on a small slice of property near our home.

“What are you doing?” he asks. When I tell him I’m writing an article about salt, he readily offers me his take. “The tourists come, and they pee pee on the rocks,” he tells me in his Bulgarian-accented Spanish. “Then, when it dries, the people collect it and sell it, very expensive.” I laugh, and thank him for the valuable insight. “My research is done,” I tell him, and he walks away contented. I have my doubts about his theory, but it does make me wonder: How do you know that your hand-collected salt doesn’t contain any…well, impurities?

Later that night over drinks, I ask our friend Mariona, a Barcelonesa whose family has been summering in Mallorca for decades, about this potential problem-with-a-capital-P. She explains the process to me: The ideal way is to dissolve the salt in water once you bring it home; then, filter it using a fine sieve to get rid of any impurities; leave it to dry for a day or two inside a shallow pan in the sun, and let the crystals form again. But, Mariona admits, she doesn’t normally do it that way. “Just look at what you’re collecting and avoid yellow salt, Caitlin,” she tells me. Just like our childhood rule at the ski hill, I think to myself: Don’t eat the yellow snow.

With the help of my father-in-law Bertrand, we finally make a concrete plan to go salt collecting— at a more reasonable hour, 5 p.m. With a large bucket and a few slotted spoons, the three of us pile into the family’s pickup truck and head to their favorite spot for salt. To get there, we have to drive through a private terrain that only residents of Colonia de Sant Jordi are permitted to access. After showing proof of residence to the security guard, we make our way along a bumpy dirt road. A cluster of partridges scamper across our path and into the bushes.

We make small talk as we usually do: in Spanish, in French and an occasional word or phrase in English. I ask Teresa about the land, and she tells me that it belongs to a very wealthy bank owner. Apparently, he won it from a Marques de something something, in a game of cards. Silently, I reaffirm to myself: And this is why I don’t gamble.

When I’m on the verge of car sickness, we finally pull up to a gate and take to trekking. “This is where I used to go with my grandparents,” Teresa tells me. We walk out onto the sharp, craggy rocks lining the coast. If you grew up in Mallorca, or at least spent a lot of time there, chances are your feet are acclimated to the rocks and you can navigate them barefooted. Take my husband Guillaume: the bottoms of his feet are covered in thick, impenetrable pads (Flintsone feet, I call them lovingly). If, like me, you spent your childhood wading in gentle streams and footing around on wet lawns, then you definitely need some foot protection.

Photo by Me

Carefully, we walk toward the sea, looking for salt inside the natural holes formed between the rocks—called cocos in Mallorquin (hence, the name sal de coco). “This one isn’t ready yet,” Teresa says, pointing out a generous puddle covered by a thin layer of barely forming crystals. I snap a couple of photos and we continue. “This one is too dry,” she tells me, and I see a solid pocket of white salt. It’s not thin and flaky like the salt we have at home. This salt is thick and brittle, closer to kosher salt than the delicate crystals we’re after.

I take a couple more photos, then Teresa alerts me that she’s found a perfect coco. Some of the crystals are floating at the water surface and some are beneath the water, swirled around into a white nest. I dip the spoon into the water and skim off a spoonful of salt. I let the water drain, then drop it into our bucket. “Taste it,” Teresa urges, and I place a flake directly onto my tongue, a sting of saltiness zinging through my taste receptors.

“A lot of chefs use it, especially on raw things like salads,” Teresa explains. “Because it adds more flavor than regular salt.” Later, I do some research and find that the sal de coco does in fact have less sodium chloride, giving it a less salty characteristic, but contains more natural flavor enhancers like magnesium, potassium, and calcium.

Squatting next to the coco, I continue to scoop, drain, and fill my bucket until the earth below the salt begins to muck up the water. By this point, Teresa and Bertrand are farther down the coast, and I see Bertrand taking out provisions—towels, bottled water, and snorkels. I hop from rock to rock in their direction.

“My first boyfriend worked in the salt mines of Colonia de Sant Jordi,” Teresa tells me when I arrive. “His name was Andres.” Oh really, I ask, pleased with this juicy tidbit of gossip. “What??” Bertrand yells jokingly. I think about the story of how they met—a dashing traveler from Normandy, passing through Mallorca on his way to Marrakesh. He met a local girl with dark eyes and wild curly hair, and never made it to Morocco.

I thought about how I met Guillaume: a carpenter from Paris, on the subway platform with a bike and a flat tire, asking for directions to Manhattan. We all had something in common—hopeless romantics, maybe, but also a willingness to take a chance. I felt more than ever part of this Mallorcan-French tribe. While Bertrand and Teresa snorkled around, I floated on my back in the fresh water, looking up at the blue sky and thinking about salt, and how we’d serve it at dinner parties when we returned to Paris in the fall.

“We collected it ourselves in Mallorca,” I imagined telling guests, while they sprinkled it over their food, “We do it every year.”

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