Some people collect antiques. Some collect restaurant matchbooks or anything decorated with cows. Janet Cam collects salt.
You might think that would make for a small collection. But in her larder are 29 boxes and plastic bags of exotic samples from the Himalayas, Panama, Korea and other places not readily associated with the common condiment. There is a black salt, a dawn-pink salt and one the color of a flowerpot. Some are gray and soggy; others twinkle like crisp snow in the sun.
Purists such as Cam pick particular salts for particular jobs. She could probably identify the best food use for Lot's wife, the Old Testament spouse turned into a pillar of sodium chloride. Cam began to collect salt nearly 15 years ago on her travels as a restaurant and lifestyle consultant.
She comes from a family with finely tuned tastes. Her grandmother arrived in Los Angeles from the Chinese province of Canton with a trunk full of beautiful clothing, some pieces of which Cam still owns. Her grandfather was a connoisseur of food and insisted that all the girls in the family learn to cook.
"Behind his Victorian house was a chicken coop. I chose the chicken each Sunday night, killed it and cooked it."
Cam has eaten at great restaurants since she was a girl. It was Washington restaurateur Yannick Cam of Le Paradou, to whom she was married and with whom she ran the distinguished Le Pavillon, who introduced her to fleur de sel from Guerande, France. "One of the great salts," she says.
It blossoms on the surface of thousands of acres of salt basins in Brittany that produce sel gris, a damp, unrefined gray salt. Harvested by hand with flat wooden scoops, sel gris develops in salt basins that fill with seawater at high tide and then drain slowly away through a system of sluices, leaving concentrated deposits. These are drained before being stored in salt-drying lofts called salorge.
With good sun and wind conditions, the "flower of the salt" -- the fleur de sel -- that is Cam's favorite forms naturally on the surface of salt basins to produce the rarer dry, flaked salts such as the English Maldon on the Essex coast and the sea salt from the Welsh island Anglesey.
Back in Los Angeles in 1991 after the closure of Le Pavillon, she found herself entertaining and being entertained by collectors. Then, on vacation in Brittany with her son, Austin, she discovered fleur de sel on the shelves of the local market, brought it home, and her collection began.
It was a suitable choice for a person of her background. "There are so many Chinese products for saltiness, so many different flavors of soy sauce."
Salt, Cam says, "is comparable to wine" in that it has different layers of flavor and textures -- and she has been fascinated by wine since the moment Yannick Cam poured her first glass of champagne during their courtship in New York.
At Le Pavillon, she became an expert in building wine lists, a job she has since undertaken for a number of restaurants, such as Dish and Nectar in the District. Some of them have wanted to pay her to talk about wine. She recommends a different approach. "I encourage people to build up a library of flavors in their heads. The same can be done with salt. People should not be swayed by packaging and marketing. They should trust their own taste."
Salt is an ancient and valued flavoring. The word "salary," for instance, comes from "salarium argentum," the ration of salt given to Roman soldiers. The expression "He's not worth his salt" comes from the Greeks, who traded salt for slaves. Long employed as a preservative, it steals moisture from cells and mold. Doctors urge discretion in its use. "Everyone has a different tolerance for salt," says Cam. "Salt is essential in food for the way it enhances flavor. Julia Watson last wrote for Food about roasting a whole pig in a Chinese box.