It’s a summer evening on the French Atlantic island of Noirmoutier. As the sun shimmers on the rustling marsh grasses, Hervé Zarka rakes in sea salt from shallow pools. He uses a simoussi, a 10-foot pole tipped with a flat board. Salt has been harvested this way since at least the seventh century, when Benedictine monks dug the canals that bring seawater into this marshland.
Zarka moved to Noirmoutier from Paris 25 years ago because he loves the ocean. Ten years after he relocated, he ended up becoming a salt-maker, or saunier. He says he is very happy with his surprise career.
“This is my little paradise. The sea is 50 yards away and I’m working the land,” he says. “That’s the whole principle of this island really — a piece of land in the middle of the sea. I think that’s what every salt-maker loves: to work in such a peaceful setting with only the birds around you.”
Sea salt has been harvested for more than 1,000 years on the Atlantic coast of France. Everything is still done by hand, from the harvest to the drying of the salt crystals in the sun.
Zarka says Noirmoutier’s salt industry was booming in the 1940s, then declined rapidly when the refrigerator came along and people began to preserve with cold, not salt. At that time, he says, consumers also clamored for products made from bright, new materials like plastic and Formica. And they wanted industrially refined, white table salt as opposed to the light gray hue of Noirmoutier’s natural sea salt, which is taken from the clay at the bottom of the pools.
But with today’s renewed focus on healthier eating, the salt marshes are making a comeback. Famous French chefs tout the mineral properties of natural sea salt and sprinkle their best dishes with fleur de sel, or “salt flower,” a fragile crystal that forms on the surface of the clay pond.
Zarka explains how the canals feed seawater into a series of secondary canals, which then feed each salt-maker’s clay ponds, known as oeillets. As the water flows between the oeillets, it evaporates, and each becomes saltier than the last until the crystals form at the bottom.
The still marsh water is able to flow between the pools because their levels differ by a few millimeters.
Three main canals reach from the sea into the land to feed Noirmoutier’s salt marshes. They are refilled every 15 days, on the full and new moon, when the tides are highest.
In the 17th century, salt-makers put in a system of locks on the canals, which enabled them to regulate the flow of water. Zarka says the skill of a saunier is keeping the balance and knowing when to replenish the water in his oeillets.
On another side of the island, 32-year-old Jessica Tessier and her father, Jean Pierre, are working in their family salt marsh. She grew up here but left for college and a job in Paris. A few years ago, she decided to return to continue the work of four generations. Tessier remembers being out in the salt marshes when she was a little girl.
“My grandfather was producing salt and he used to make little tools for me, just adapted to my size,” says Tessier. “So I had these little tools with which I tried desperately to harvest some salt!”
Tessier is skimming fleur de sel with a special tool called a lousse. “It’s like a thin layer of ice on icy water,” she says. “So it’s really thin and its really made from the action of the sun and the wind. The particles of salt just stay at the surface of the water. It’s as if you were creaming some really creamy milk.”
Fleur de sel fetches 20 times the price of the coarse salt raked up from the bottom, allowing salt-makers to earn a decent living. But rain can ruin an entire harvest. Tessier says salt farmers, more than other farmers, are at the mercy of the weather.
Today, 150 sauniers on the small island of Noirmoutier produce about 2,500 tons of sea salt during the season, which lasts from June to September. The return of Noirmoutier’s salt industry is also a boon for tourism. When he’s not raking salt, Zarka, with his sheepdog Haskel at his side, takes groups of tourists into the marshes in his horse-drawn carriage.
Zarka tells the visitors about the three things that have revolutionized practices in an industry that has hardly changed for centuries:
The rubber tire, which allowed wheelbarrows to be brought into the marshes without sinking into the clay; new materials that have lightened traditional heavy wooden tools; and smartphones … that now let every salt-maker know when it’s going to rain.