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Food & dining

FOOD

Salt fills a micro-niche in the grocery business

CHRISTINE PETERSON

HimalaSalt offers pink-hued salt harvested from Pakistan’s Himalayan region.

GREAT BARRINGTON - Melissa Kushi thinks salt should be a conversation piece, and she has the gorgeous pink specimens to prove it.

CHRISTINE PETERSON

Melissa Kushi at HimalaSalt.

Walk into her HimalaSalt store here, opened last May, and your eye is caught quickly by the deep pink hues of tableware and other kitchen items, all cut by hand from salt harvested within the Pakistani Himalayas.

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The store is devoted almost wholly to salt mined in the Himalayasand organic pepper imported by Kushi’s other enterprise, Sustainable Sourcing. The seasonings come in shakers and grinders, and also take the shape of salad bowls, cups, grilling slabs, sushi plates, and even a small cube packaged with a stainless steel grater. There are six kinds of high-end peppercorns, including heirloom varieties. (When Martha Stewart featured some on her TV show in 2010, Stewart praised the heirloom cubeb and long peppers, describing the latter as possessing “a beautiful, earthy flavor with touches of nutmeg and cardamom.’’)

But the fine-grain salt is the blockbuster. It emerged just at the right time, cresting toward the top of a newly emerged, micro-niche in the grocery business. “We used to have plain salt on the shelf,’’ says Scott Price, an Austin, Texas-based food industry consultant who has been a grocery coordinator for the Whole Foods grocery chain. Then, says Price, “everyone had to have sea salt.’’ He works with Kushi to help place her products in stores. “Now the salt category has evolved where there are salts from all around the world, and the Himalayan pink salt in particular is the salt that has really grabbed that trend and really swung it up a curve.’’

Kushi’s wholesale operation, Sustainable Sourcing, has grown to just under $2 million in annual sales since she founded it in 2006, she says.

Kushi grew up on an organic farm in East Texas and spent some years in the import-export business. She was married to a son of macrobiotic pioneers Michio and Aveline Kushi. Her interest in this salt was piqued when she was given a bag of it by a Pakistani cooking student. “Every time I would turn my head away from it, I would have dreams about the salt,’’ she says.

What makes this salt special is its distinctive pink color, and mild, almost sweet, aftertaste. Most important to some is its nutritional content. Mined from the site of a long-gone ocean swallowed by the emerging Himalayas 250 million years ago, the salt is free of pollutants, and it preserves trace elements of some 80 minerals.

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Chez Nous Bistro in nearby Lee features a French gray salt from Brittany on tables. When Kushi asked the restaurant proprietors to craft some recipes featuring her salt and peppercorns, the Himalayan variety won new fans. “It has a very bright, pure, clean flavor,’’ says Rachel Portnoy, co-owner and pastry chef. “It’s just what you want. It doesn’t have any chemical aftertaste.’’

Chef Franck Tessier developed a salted caramel dessert featuring HimalaSalt, and an ahi tuna tartare utilizing the citrusy pink peppercorns.

Cultures have used salt to preserve meat, fish, and other foods for thousands of years. For Kushi, a salt obsession makes perfect sense. “Throughout history, salt has been the beginning of all civilizations,’’ she observes. “Cultures couldn’t emerge without a salt supply, because they depended upon it for life.’’

They may not have depended upon salt salad bowls and sushi plates, but one imagines those couldn’t have hurt either.

Jeremy Goodwin can be reached at jeremy@jeremydgoodwin.com.

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