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On the bora wind

 

Koper, Izola, Strunjan, Portorož … early morning January sun gradually paints the horizon in ever warmer tones, while the sea’s surface is smooth as glass, deceptively inviting. Placid apathy lies on the Sečovlje salt-pans with a single grey heron flying over the pools and canals. Dry rushes slowly bend in the cold wind coming from the sea.

It seems as if time has stopped here. It truly has. The Sečovlje and smaller Strunjan salt-pans are the only salt-pans in this part of the Adriatic Sea, where salt is still harvested manually with traditional tools according to a procedure that has remained practically unchanged for 700 years.

Salt is harvested from salt-pans that consist of pools for condensing seawater and crystallisation.

Sol Barba
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

Piran salt into the world

Seawater runs from condensing to crystallisation pools with several-millimetres-thick petola, a special biosediment composed of minerals, algae and microorganisms, which prevents the contact of the salt with sea mud and ensures the high quality of salt, making it cleaner and whiter.

With vaporisation of water (ideally in sunny weather with the help of the bora and tramontane winds), salt slowly crystallises on the petola and is then collected with wooden rakes into mounds where water is drained. Once dry, it is loaded onto small wagons and taken to storage. Nothing is added to Piran salt. It is not refined or washed and maintains its natural balanced composition.

On average, some 2,500 to 3,000 tonnes of salt are produced in the Sečovlje salt-pans, whose reputation is growing on foreign markets as well.

Barba Salt
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

Mister Barba

A dilemma arises at this point: If you have a flawless basic product, how much do you process it? As little as possible, says Davor Podbevšek who has gained success with his Barba line of flavoured salt Barba line of flavoured salt. Dried tomato, BBQ, chilli, green peppercorn, ginger, citruses, Mediterranean herbs, porcini mushrooms, Cabernet Sauvignon, black garlic, even octopus and sea bass are featured in his latest series.

A total of 35 flavours of salt. “It’d be better if I had fewer, but I can’t help myself. I have to release my creative energy,” he utters almost apologetically.

Unlike other commercial flavoured salts, Podbevšek does not add anything else to his. It is without additives, artificial colours, and flavour enhancers.

Davor Podbevšek

Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

At Seča boatyard

The tramontane wind picks up and so does the swaying of the old fishing nets hung in the workshop of Seča boatyard right at the mouth of St Bartholomew Channel on the edge of the Sečovlje Salina Nature Park. Škverji, small boatyards, where wooden vessels are repaired by hand in the traditional way, used to be a regular sight along the coast of the Adriatic Sea. Only few remain today and the masters who are still involved in such handicraft are rare. Seča boatyard, neighbour to Irena Fonda’s sea bass fish farm, is the only still working boatyard in the Northern Adriatic.

Davor, an energetic Koper resident with a short-cut silver beard and a red pirate cutter on blue waves tattooed on his forearm, has decided to mix salt outdoors today at the mercy of winter nature.

“I like being in the wind. That it hits me, cleans me. I used to jump into the sea when there was the tramontane wind, but now my wife doesn’t let me anymore because of the children,” he explains with a dreamy gaze over the shiny, slightly wavy blue surface in front of him.

He stops a little and wanders off into memories before he again starts peeling brownish, fermented garlic cloves. The tramontane wind blows harder and blows the peels off the wooden table so that they dance in the air as if almost in symbiosis with the dried, deformed octopus tentacles that hang from the net in the old workshop decorated with the portraits of Marxists on one wall and Marshal Tito on the other. Under the former, piles of paint buckets are collected, and under the latter, someone has left a box of Domaćica biscuits, brandies and Christmas decorations.

Barba Salt
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

Barba Salt

Podbevšek slowly grinds black garlic with salt crystals in the mortar so that they mix into a brownish umami salt mixture. He uses only traditional non-iodised and unrefined salt into which he mixes carefully selected ingredients sourced from the nearby small organic producers and farmers.

Podbevšek ended up in the salt business, in which he has now been involved for eight years, completely coincidentally. He worked in a bank for many years, where he also met his wife. They both loved good food and wine, but with the wedding and an apartment came a loan and limited possibilities of eating out in restaurants. They have become more and more innovative in their home kitchen. On one occasion, Podbevšek mixed salt with a few herbs in his mortar and the result excited both of them.

For the next two years, he made salt mixtures for home use, friends and gifts until the day he got a call from LifeClass Hotels in Portorož saying that they had tasted his salt and would like to have some. And so, his hobby became his profession. He left his dull job at the bank and fully committed himself to salt.

Barba Salt
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

Salt as a boutique product

The business is not easy since, as he explains, people are not used to seeing salt as a boutique product and paying much more for it than for a regular box of salt. So, Podbevšek’s salts find their place in the kitchens of foodies, top chefs and wine producers.

In cooperation with Joško Sirk from La Subida, a Michelin-starred restaurant just across the Italian border in Krmin, Podbevšek makes salt with Sirk’s wine vinegar matured in barrels, and salt with pumpkin seeds in cooperation with oil producer Kocbek. He makes a special three-part salt for Edi Simčič Wines, where he found inspiration in their Duet Lex, a blend of red Bordeaux Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. One part of the salt is mixed with grape skins, the second with reduced Duet Lex, and the third part smoked in barrels where wine has matured previously.

He gets the salt via different procedures, but it always starts the same way: the salt is first cleaned and so are the other ingredients, the quality of which must be impeccable. He then proceeds to grind, which is the only mechanical part of the procedure, before he begins to mix. Some salts are only massaged with other ingredients, while others are mixed with salt in a mortar, and reduction is used with the third ones. After that everything is up to time, while Podbevšek occasionally opens jars of salt and checks if anything needs to be added.

Barba Salt
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

From octopus to pumpkin seed salt

Podbevšek works a lot with by-products and raw materials that would otherwise be discarded. He produced pumpkin seed salt after a few failed attempts with pumpkin seed oil, which did not pass the test of time. He eventually discovered that salt reacted best with oilcake, i.e. what remains after pumpkin seeds are ground.

Similarly, he used the skin of Fonda sea bass fillets for sea bass salt, which he put in salt for six months so that the salt absorbed the fish aroma. He had the most difficulties with octopus salt, for the needs of which he also mixed the salt with pieces of dried and lyophilised octopus for almost six months, which resulted in the most intensive salt of all: the concentrated essence of the sea and the life in it.

But nothing compares to the salt that Podbevšek mixed based on an order from a client in Dubai, who wanted a flavoured salt to beat them all: with sea bass, Malvazija reduction, cuttlefish ink, and of course, pieces of gold. The golden iodine of the Adriatic.

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