Solar Salt​—Harvest of the Sun, Sea, and Wind


AT THE boundary between the sea and the land, patchworks of varying hues reflect the changing moods of the sky. Standing in a mosaic of rectangular ponds, a man known in French as a paludier rakes a rich harvest from the water into little white pyramids that glisten in the sunlight. Here in the marshes of Guérande and on the islands of Noirmoutier and Ré, on the Atlantic Coast, France’s paludiers continue to use traditional methods of harvesting salt.

“White Gold”

The use of salt pans on France’s Atlantic Coast goes back to about the third century C.E. But it was not until the end of the Middle Ages that salt production really took off. Population expansion in medieval Europe vastly increased the demand for salt, since it could preserve meat and fish. To preserve four tons of herring, for example, required one ton of salt. Given that meat was a luxury for common folk, salted fish was their staple fare. Ships from all over northern Europe thus came to Brittany’s shores to purchase the huge quantities of salt needed by fishermen to preserve their catch.

The fortunes being made on this “white gold” did not go unnoticed by the kings of France. In 1340 a tax on salt was established, which came to be known as the gabelle, from the Arabic word for tax​—qabālah. This tax was extremely unpopular, generating bloody uprisings. What was considered most unjust was that the purchaser was obliged to pay a high price for the salt and to buy at least the minimum amount of salt stipulated, irrespective of his actual needs. What is more, privileged individuals, such as the nobility and the clergy, were exempted from the tax. Certain provinces, including Brittany, were also exempt, while others paid only a quarter of the rate. This led to gross discrepancies in salt prices, with salt costing up to 40 times more from one province to another.

It is hardly surprising that in this context smuggling became a growth industry. Those who were caught smuggling, however, were severely punished. They could be branded, sent to the slave galleys, or even sentenced to death. At the beginning of the 18th century, about a quarter of all galley slaves were salt smugglers, the others being common criminals, army deserters, or Protestants persecuted after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. * When the Revolution of 1789 swept through France, one of the first demands was for the abolition of this hated tax.

Open-Air Solar Evaporators

The way that salt is extracted on France’s Atlantic Coast has basically remained unchanged for centuries. How is the salt harvested? The paludier spends autumn through spring repairing the clay dikes and channels in the marshes and preparing his crystallizing pans. With the onset of summer, the sun, wind, and tides turn the marshes into open-air solar evaporators. At high tide, seawater enters an  initial pond called a vasière, where the water settles and begins to evaporate. The water is then slowly channeled through a series of ponds, where it evaporates further. As the water becomes more and more brackish, microscopic algae proliferate, giving the brine a temporary reddish hue. On dying, they perfume the salt with a faint smell of violets. By the time the brine arrives in the crystallizing pans, it is saturated, having increased from about 35 grams [1 oz] of salt per quart to about 260 grams [9 oz].

Because of the fragile nature of these tidal marshes, mechanized harvesting, as practiced in the Mediterranean salt marshes of Salin-de-Giraud and Aigues-Mortes, is not possible. Using a long wooden rakelike instrument, the paludier draws the salt onto the edge of the pan, taking care not to scrape up any clay from the bottom of the shallow basin. The salt​—slightly gray because of the clay—​is then left to dry. On average, a paludier farms about 60 pans, each of which produces approximately one and a half tons of salt a year.

Under certain conditions, a fine layer of salt crystals forms on the surface of the water like snowflakes. This fleur de sel (flower of salt), as it is known, makes up only a small percentage of the annual harvest, but it is much appreciated in French cuisine.

Of course, all of this depends on the whims of the weather. One former salt merchant said: “We are never protected from a bad year. In 1950, for example, it rained all summer. We didn’t even harvest enough to fill a straw hat.” Pascal, a paludier in Guérande, commented: “In 1997, I harvested 180 tons of coarse salt and 11 tons of ‘flower.’ This year [1999], the weather wasn’t as good. I only harvested 82 tons.” Ironically, extremely hot weather can also be harmful, causing the brine to overheat and not crystallize.

Ebb and Flow

In the 19th century, industrialization turned the tide on the Atlantic marshes. Improved transportation allowed Mediterranean producers to flood markets  with low-cost salt. What is more, the Mediterranean climate allows for an annual harvest that produces over 1.5 million tons of salt per year. Faced with such competition, by the 1970’s, production in the Atlantic marshes was at its lowest ebb and seemed to be doomed.

But in recent years this “white gold” has recovered some of its former luster. Growing awareness of the ecological and economic value of the salt marshes has steadily turned the tide. The salt pans are part of an ecosystem that is a haven for a large variety of plants and migratory birds​—a haven that is now recognized and protected.

What is more, these unspoiled shores featuring a traditional activity unchanged by the agitation of modern living attract tourists seeking to get away from the rat race. Not to be overlooked either is the fact that in an age of growing concern about pollution and the quality of the food we eat, a foodstuff that is produced entirely naturally, without any chemical treatment or processing, has a major marketing advantage. Perhaps, after all, in this world of globalization and breakneck competition, there is still place for France’s paludiers, with their centuries-old profession of harvesting salt.


^ par. 7 See the August 15, 1998, issue of The Watchtower, pages 25-9, published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.

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High-salt diets have been accused of causing high blood pressure, a factor in heart attacks. For this reason, health specialists generally recommend a daily intake of no more than six grams.

However, recent studies seem to suggest that eating less salt does not significantly lower blood pressure in people with high blood pressure and that it has even less effect on people with normal blood pressure. A study published in The Lancet, of March 14, 1998, indicated that people on a low-salt diet suffered more heart attacks than those with normal sodium intake, and the study concluded that “for a low-sodium diet, harm may outweigh benefit.” An article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) of May 4, 1999, declared that “restriction of salt intake for the normotensive population is not recommended at present, because of insufficient evidence demonstrating that this would lead to a reduced incidence of hypertension.”

Does this mean that there is no need for concern over how much salt you eat? As with all dietary questions, the watchword is moderation. The above-mentioned CMAJ article recommends that people avoid eating too much salt, limit the amount of salt used in cooking, and try to refrain from adding salt at the table. However, if you have high blood pressure or heart problems, follow the recommendations of your doctor.

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“Fleur de sel”

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Île de Ré

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Harvesting the “fleur de sel”

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Salt marshes and pans

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A “paludier” in Noirmoutier

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© Cliché Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris

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Top: Index Stock Photography Inc./Diaphor Agency; left: © V. Sarazin/CDT44; center and right: © Aquasel, Noirmoutier