Sale grosso is what my mother added to the water when cooking pasta and sale fino is what she used to season food. That is the world in which I grew up and reaching for these two kinds of salt is what comes natural to me. In recent years, however, I have slightly expanded the familiar two-spices list. First, the two staple salts of my kitchen: The white coarse and fine sea salt in the photo were harvested in Sicily, in saline (salterns) located in the province of Trapani (a city on the western tip of the triangular island). The third salt is sel gris (grey salt) an unrefined, coarse sea salt that comes from France.
Language Corner: The word salario (salary) has its root in the allowance paid to Roman soldiers to buy salt. A food lacking salt and/or flavor is described as insipido. The traditional unsalted bread of central Italy is called pane sciapo or pane sciocco (among other names).
When I visited the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco three years ago, I saw an incredible array of flavored salts. The one that really caught my fancy was vanilla salt. When I went back home, I created my own version of it. I have a small container where I keep fine salt (currently, it is a pinkish salt harvested from an ancient deposit in Central Utah) and pieces of vanilla bean previously used to make vanilla ice cream. I rinse the used vanilla bean (which was split in half lengthwise as part of the ice cream preparation), let it dry, and then add it to salt. I wait at least two weeks before using the flavored salt. (Side note: I use the same process to make vanilla sugar.)
From a trip to Italy, I brought back a colorful and cheerful salt and pepper mill pair for the dining table. The salt mill contained sel gris for a while and now has Himalayan pink salt, while the pepper mill contains black peppercorns. My husband describes the two mills as methane molecules, based on their shape: imagine the carbon atom as their core body and the four hydrogen atoms, one at the end of each limb. To grind, you turn the upper part of the body and the ground salt or pepper comes out from one of the feet, which has a lid that prevents sprinkling when the mill is not in use.
Freshly ground pepper is an important seasoning in many dishes I prepare, so I have another pepper mill, which I keep in the kitchen for use while cooking. A pepper mill takes pepe in grani (whole peppercorns) as input and delivers pepe macinato (ground pepper) as output.
Language corner — A few expressions related to pepper:
- sale e pepe (salt-and-pepper), as in capelli sale e pepe (salt-and-pepper hair)
- tutto pepe (spirited)
- peperino ((real) live wire)
Hear the pronunciation of the Italian words in this article spoken by me: sale-e-pepe