Best Sea Salt - Añana From Spain

Finish your dishes like Basque Country's most celebrated chefs: with this salt from a 200-million-year-old sea

Of the abundant produce, cured meats and fruits of the Cantabrian Sea widely available in Basque Country, there is but one local ingredient that has won the endorsement of the region's Michelin-decorated chefs: the salt. And while gourmands may flock to San Sebastián for effervescent txakoli wine, wedges of Idiazabal cheese and jars of briny guindilla peppers, the savvy traveler may want to reallocate a little more luggage space on the next trip to Spain.

The region's prized mineral, Añana salt is traditionally harvested from springs born of an ancient sea in El Valle Salado in the southwest corner of Basque Country. Añana flower salt, the delicate variety hand-harvested from the valley's surface during the evaporation process, is easily distinguishable from pink Himalayan pebbles and pyramids of Maldon. Its flakes are Day-Glo white, flat like shale and varied in size, like shards of milky glass broken from a single pane.

Martín Berasategui, chef of his eponymous three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Lasarte, dubs Añana the "Rolls-Royce of salts," a sentiment many Basque chefs would agree with.

"I think it fits well with our gastronomic culture, our seasonal products and our way of cooking," Amaiur Martínez Ortuzar, who leads the kitchen at San Sebastián's Ganbara, says. At the lauded pintxo bar and restaurant, known for traditional Basque cuisine and a hyper-seasonal menu, Martínez Ortuzar uses Añana flower flakes to finish no-fuss dishes like whole wild turbot, white asparagus and roast piquillo peppers. And when it comes to the classic Basque txuleta—the Flinstonian T-bone steak seared over charcoal and served on a sizzling griddle—there's no finishing touch more appropriate than a sprinkling of the white fragments.

Photo: Valle Salado de Anana via Facebook

Añana salt isn't just an essential element of Basque cuisine though; it's also an integral part of its culture. The salt valley has been an important economic engine in the region since the Middle Ages, when it was governed by a community of salt workers and home to more than 5,000 platforms used to collect the white gold. After hundreds of healthy production years, increasingly competitive markets in the mid-1900s led the Añana salt workers' association—the Gatzagak—to reduce costs by introducing a cheaper, unsustainable building material into the saltworks: cement. With a new focus on profitability, the salt was overharvested, and the sustainable practices that defined the valley for generations began to die out. Workers abandoned their posts, the area deteriorated and El Valle Salado was nearly lost.

It wasn't until a revitalization effort in 2000 that a master plan was developed to drive the recovery and rehabilitation of the valley. Later in 2009, the Valle Salado de Añana Foundation emerged to preserve the economic and cultural benefits of the salt valley; that same year, the Gatzagak donated its pans used to evaporate and harvest the salt to the foundation, giving the foundation full ownership of the valley. And in 2017, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations designated the area among the first Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems of Europe. Valle Salado de Añana has, after thousands of years, officially earned its place among the world's most significant natural and cultural systems, alongside Andean agriculture in Peru, Kashmiri saffron cultivation and the rice terraces of mountainous China. 

Travelers to Basque Country can enjoy Añana salt at world-class restaurants like Azurmendi, Akelarre and Mugaritz, whose chefs are among the ingredient's devoted following. To take some home, look for Añanako gatza (Basque for "Añana salt") flower flakes in local markets. It can be overwhelming to choose a culinary souvenir in San Sebastián, so when it comes to the funky cider and sparkling wine, bacalao, anchovies, and glistening links of chorizo, leave only with their memories. For a memento worth your limited packing space, Añana salt is the lighter, longer-lasting and most culturally rich pick.

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Amelia Pape is a freelance food and culture writer who explores people, stories and social issues surrounding global cuisine. Follow her on Instagram at @ameliaration.