6 Questions with Mark Bitterman

How did you get the idea for the term ‘selmelier?’

I’ve been a wine freak my whole life. I actually had a wine cellar when I was in high school. I always loved the connection of things that came out of the ground—the connections of product, and culture and place. It was always fun to tell the stories of these bottles. So, I had this long-standing connection to wine, but I certainly never thought of myself as a sommelier. And I was standing in our shop one day right after we opened, talking to a customer. And they said, ‘You’re an expert, but with salt.’ And I replied, ‘I’m like a selmelier.’ It just came out of my mouth, and I was really thrilled with myself. I swear to God I’m not into puns. It was just a moment of clarity. A sommelier’s job isn’t to just be an expert in wine, it’s to make wine meaningful. They tell a story. And that was my thought with salt. Sure, they taste different. But what’s exciting is that connection of flavor, tradition and food. You derive more meaning that way.

How do you think salt instills a sense of place?

It’s the most place-centric thing there is, in my opinion. Since the very beginning of agriculture or human socialist organization beyond nomadic tribes, we’ve been finding salt, and building societies around it. People would find a salt deposit in the mountains and say, ‘Shit, I could raise goats here. We could have agriculture and stay in one place.’ Over the millenia, people have been gathering and building communities around salt. Every place in history has had people communing around salt, and then making salt, and then building social and economical traditions and systems around salt. I love hyperbole, and I actually can’t exaggerate this enough. It’s a fundamental thing. Salt is place.

How is salt a unifier of all these places and societies?

Salt has always organized people. When you think about Chicago in the meatpacking industry—why did they go there? Because of the salt. You think about the butter cookies in the north of France. You taste them and think, ‘Why are these so darn good?’ It’s because of the salt. Everywhere in the world has this connection. You go to a village in central Japan. And you think about why they have this bottarga tradition just like they have in Sicily where they do those dried fish eggs. How can they make this fantastic dish that can be served in uniquely Japanese or uniquely European ways? Well, because they have the same salt making tradition. And it’s bizarre! Salt is always this connecting point around society, exchanging information and exchanging tradition.

How does The Meadow source salt?

It’s super top secret—no, just kidding. Ultimately, it’s: does this salt really tell a compelling story. Does it have something that you should care about. There are thousands, tens of thousands, of salts out there in the world, and it would be impractical to have them all. And not very interesting or necessary, I guess. Instead, we look for the ones that tell the most interesting stories the clearest. Along with that, it’s going to be about does it taste really good, does it do something really good in food, does it connect to the people and place where it’s made?

What is one of your favorite salts that’s the hardest to track down?

One of my favorite salts in the world comes from Lake Assal on the east coast of Africa in Djibouti. But trying to get stuff out of Djibouti when there’s tribal warfare with Somalia and all this crap going on the time, it’s like, ACK! I want this salt desperately, but it’s never in the store. It’s the only salt in the world that makes spherical crystals—which is chemically impossible by the way. It’s like proof of the existence of God or something. Like, yeah, I know that chemistry says you need crystal, but… I’m going to make a sphere.

A lot of people think of salt as just an ingredient. How do you challenge people to think about it differently?

That’s the basis of the absurdity and necessity of The Meadow in the first place. We opened a flower shop and I put my salt in there. People would come in every single day and be like, ‘Yeah, salt is salt. This is nonsense.’ But the way I’d challenge them is saying, look, salt is like any other thing. It’s produced by people for food using technology, using climate, using natural resources like the ocean. And wherever that’s done, the result is somewhat different based on the factors. Once you recognize that, you look at salt as something distinctive and unique. Then you think, ‘How can I take advantage of that uniqueness in my food?’ Once you start practicing and playing with that, there’s the proof. We are interested in adding texture, meaning and dimensionality to people’s daily lives. And there’s incredible validation in that. It’s really fun to see.