Fleur de sel is a type of sea salt, primarily harvested in Brittany, France. In French, the name means “flower of salt,” and as this implies, it is very delicate and fluffy. Many gourmet cooks work with fleur de sel, adding it to dishes after they are already cooked to add a faint crunchy texture and a distinctive flavor, and some fans of gourmet salt have adopted it for home use as well. While the salt could be dismissed as part of a larger trend to eat fancy gourmet foods, it really is rather unique, and is well worth experimenting with.
Like other salts, including conventional sea salt, table salt, and kosher salt, fleur de sel is composed primarily of sodium chloride. What makes it and other gourmet salts unique is their impurities. Traditionally, it has a faintly gray color, due to the minerals that naturally occur in the areas where it is harvested, and it also has a mild but recognizable flavor. Because of the way in which it is harvested, it is also less dense than table salt, so it has less of a salty flavor to it.
Like other sea salts, fleur de sel is harvested by evaporating sea water. However, to harvest it, workers gently skim the top layer of the sea salt from partially evaporated pools, before it sinks to the bottom again. These salt crystals are very fine, light, and delicate, and must be handled with care and exposed to minimal moisture, or they will clump again. Because of the artisan hand-harvesting process, the salt is more expensive than conventional salts, and the process seems unlikely to become mechanized, as it requires a good eye and a delicate hand. Once packaged, fleur de sel is exported all over the world, and can be found in most stores that sell fine kitchen herbs and spices.
Because fleur de sel lacks an aggressive salty flavor, it is often paired with sweets for unusual desserts. Caramels lightly dusted with it are popular in France, and some consumers enjoy eating it on ice cream or with chocolate bars for an interesting flavor experience. Fleur de sel can also be used to season delicately flavored dishes without overwhelming them with salt, and is often brought to the table in a salt cellar in fine dining establishments so that diners can season their foods to taste.