Cutting down salt in cooking

Raymond Blanc is on a crusade to cut the amount of salt in British cooking – and his fellow chefs are in the firing line.

Taken from The Times health section 11 October 2011

Raymond Blanc tells a story about cooking in his first restaurant in Oxford in the 1970s. He prepared a meal for two businessmen and watched as the plates were set before them. They instantly picked up the salt cellars and began to liberally season their food.

“A nightmare! They murdered my food,” says Blanc, shuddering at the memory of his early days. “Food would come back: ‘Not salty enough, not sugary enough. More salt, more sugar.’ I had big problems to start with.”

Today, as one of our most revered chefs and the possessor of two Michelin stars at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, his country house hotel in Oxfordshire, the Frenchman doesn’t suffer so many complaints about what he serves up. But he does worry about the amount of salt consumed in his adopted country.

To reduce blood pressure levels, the Food Standards Agency has been working with food manufacturers and supermarkets on incremental steps towards smaller amounts of salt in processed food. But not everyone is signed up to the crusade. Last month independent butchers and retailers complained that the British fry-up was under threat from the “salt police” because they couldn’t make tasty sausages and bacon with less salt. A survey found that one loaf of bread in every four sold in high street stores contained as much salt per slice as a packet of crisps.

In addition to the effect it has on blood pressure a  high-salt diet is linked to conditions including osteoporosis, stomach cancer, kidney disease and obesity, and may exacerbate the symptoms of asthma and diabetes.

Blanc has long advocated a low-salt diet. In his home city of Besançon, his mother, who first gave him a love of cooking, used “very little” salt. In his book Blanc Vite, published 13 years ago, the third of his ten commandments after “use only the freshest food, organic where possible” and “eat a varied diet” is: “Use as little sugar and salt as possible in cooking, particularly in your children’s meals. Let them grow up with more refined palates than us — and free from our health problems.”

Now he is targeting his message at fellow chefs. On a recent evening at the Raymond Blanc Cookery School at Le Manoir, he was to be found giving a salt masterclass to 40 chefs from Charlton House, a catering company with contracts that include the Garden Café at Buckingham Palace, Mansion House and the dining rooms of City law firms.

First he makes us perform the salt test that he gives all his chefs. He has taken eight 1-litre bottles of water and added varying amounts of salt to each. We have to guess how many grams of salt they contain. At first everyone is guessing wildly, but after tasting a couple of bottles, most begin to get the hang of it. Blanc uses the test to see how salt-sensitive his chefs are.

He doles out portions of Zabaione, the Italian dessert, and asks the chefs to season the dish before he tastes them. Some are complimented. Others are too salty. With one he rocks back on his heels and cries out: “Ooooh! Too salty!” He tells the chef that such a dish would not be served in his restaurant. “You can do nothing with that. All that work, all that waste of money, waste of time.”

Later I ask the chefs what they got from the session and they are full of praise for the “inspirational” Blanc and some say they will be thinking about the salt they put in food. “I’m criminal, I know it,” jokes Richard Haye, the chef at Ofcom in London. “I know that I over-season. I’m going to try to reduce the salt.” Others, when I ask if they’ll do the same, don’t seem to have grasped the key message. “I season to taste,” says one and another agrees with him.

Blanc’s point is that it is their sense of taste that they should be re-examining. He believes that decades of too much salt have left people with a poor idea of what food should taste like. Blanc says that the message about excess salt is getting through “but for it to become part of universal consciousness takes time. You cannot just topsy-turvy 50 years of ignorance.”

For too long salt has been seen as the easy way to add flavour. “Putting in more salt is a very simple way to correct otherwise very poor ingredients.” He sees the use of salt as a consequence of industrialised food production and becomes excited as he rages against our food culture. “We created a nightmare. We have lost our craft and created a society that is devouring the world. Grab. Eat. Chew. Digest. Defecate. Retailers didn’t care, processors didn’t care, consumers didn’t care, chefs didn’t care. It is only now that we are connecting with our food values.”

Our dependence on salt is “insidious — 90 per cent of food is produced by intensive farming, which uses every pesticide. A processor comes in and has a huge armoury: colourings, agents of texture, he has salt, he has sugar, he has fat to make that food taste palatable.”

So what can we do? He says that while salt is a catalyst of taste there are other ways of adding flavour. “Herbs are a wonderful way to put a bit of oomph to your flavour. You have got hundreds of flavours within the herb sector. Salt is not the only catalyst, there are so many others that beg to be used instead. Bitter is a catalyst, sour is a catalyst, acid is a catalyst, vinegar. We rely too much on salt. The first thing I ask my young people is to be curious.”

When cooking he advises people to be cautious at first about seasoning with salt simply because once it is in the dish it cannot be removed. “You can always add salt.” He also suggests that cooks must learn how much salt they are putting in a dish when they add the traditional pinch. “A pinch of fine salt may be two grams. A pinch of rock salt is only half a gram. I measure everything by a pinch. My pinch is 1 gram. I can do it a thousand times it will be one gram. I teach my young chefs to measure one gram.” The rest of us need to experiment.

Blanc impresses upon the chefs at the masterclass how much salt is naturally in food. A kilo of organic chicken can contain a gram of salt. He makes his chicken stock without adding salt. We taste a bowl of stock before it is reduced and it tastes slightly salty. Then once it is reduced it is much saltier.

The problem is that we are used to cheap, salty food and in hard economic times it is difficult to tell people that they should be buying better ingredients. “We don’t spend money on quality food, we spend on fast food and obviously fast food relies heavily on salt, on bad fats and sugar.” (Don’t get him started on sugar.) Also, while we talk a good game about cooking better food, we don’t necessarily do so. “We all say ‘the nation must cook’, but the nation cooks less and less and relies more and more on fast food. Cooking takes effort. In England we talk well about food but we need to cook more.” He is optimistic that the British will learn to cook and eat better. “We will reconnect more with our food culture and nutrition.”

As the visiting chefs are fed canapés and taken on tours of the kitchen after their lesson, well-dressed couples are arriving for dinner at the restaurant. Will they find salt cellars on the table? “Of course!” says Blanc. “I am not going to be a tyrant. At the cookery school, we educate people. In the restaurant it is about celebration. I am here to give joy.”

Time to go against the grain

The daily salt intake of most people in the UK is about 9g (nine small pinches) — 3g more than the reommended amount. But this figure has been falling for a decade.

Three quarters of the salt in our diets comes from processed food, and our reduced intake is due largely to food manufacturers and supermarkets reacting to pressure from lobby groups and the Department of Health to include less salt in their products.

Health professionals argue that there is strong evidence linking high salt intake with high blood pressure, which in turn is a major cause of heart attacks and heart failure, the most common causes of death and illness in the developed world. A high-salt diet is also linked to conditions including osteoporosis, stomach cancer, kidney disease and obesity, and may exacerbate the symptoms of asthma and diabetes.

If you are trying to cut back on salt, eat fewer foods such as bacon, ham, cheese, prawns, salami, olives and stock cubes. Foods low in salt include fresh fish and meat, eggs, milk, pulses, ricotta and Emmenthal cheeses, and porridge.

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