Meet & Eat: Mark Bitterman, Selmelier, The Meadow
Yes, you read that correctly. Mark Bitterman is a Selmelier —a salt expert. He recently opened an NYC branch of The Meadow, a shop they started in Portland, Oregon. This West Village boutique not only carries salt, but chocolate, bitters, syrups, oils and vinegars, or, as the Bittermans like to say, it's "a place where the beautiful, the delicious, and the unexpected are brought together for your pleasure."
The couple was just nominated for a James Beard Award and two IACP Awards for their book, Salted. In case you haven't had the chance to stop by the store, here's a little taste of what you're missing.
Name: Mark Bitterman
Occupation: Selmelier, The Meadow
Location: West Village
Explain the concept behind the Meadow and your choice of products. We wanted to surround ourselves with the elemental things that inspire us in food and travel. More than 100 artisan salts from around the world, a carefully curated selection of 350+ chocolate bars, masses of fresh cut flowers, and a comprehensive assortment of over 75 varieties of bitters for cocktail mixing and cooking. The Meadow is a small shop where we have no signage and minimal packaging; it's all about spending time educating and learning from our customers.
Why is salt so important in food and cooking? Salt is the one ingredient that virtually every culinary tradition in the world uses most! Salt is also the single most powerful flavor enhancer for food—and it tastes great in its own right. Salt has the unique power to temper unwanted flavors like excessive bitterness or sweetness, and to accentuate subtler flavors, thus bringing everything together into vibrant harmony.
We sell artisan salts because every salt is unique. For thousands of years every culture of the world made salt, and each reflected the unique climate, terrain, and needs of the region. Each has unique mineral content, crystal structure, and residual moisture that dictate the salt's behavior on food. By taking advantage of the distinctive qualities of each salt and using each to its greatest effect, you get way more flavor and a more intimate connection to your food.
Looking back: salt is the most ancient ingredient, making it the foundation of all cuisine. When we first emerged from the caves and began to raise livestock and crops, we immediately needed an external supply of salt to survive, and so did our animals. Since then salt has found its way across all the culinary traditions of the world to become the most universal ingredient.
Do different salts make the same food taste different? How? Yes! The difference can be striking. A good example is a juicy rib-eye steak. Grill your steak with little or no salt, slice it, then sprinkle with a coarse, moist, mineral-briny salt like sel gris from Noirmoutier, France. The salt will not dissolve into the food because it is already moist, saturated with water from the ocean that gave birth to it. Instead the salt will just sit there, beading up in a well of moisture from the steak. Then, when you bite, you get a luscious minerally crunch of salt, then the steak, and as you bite this evolves, a spark of salt, the carnal juices of the steak, the salt, the steak. This experience evolves as you chew, swallow, and bite again--a radically more dynamic and layered experience of a steak.
What should Serious Eaters consider when shopping for salts? Buy salts that reflect your food tastes. If you like lots of fresh vegetables or just want a dramatic display of saltiness with everything you eat, buy salts with flake-shaped crystals. If you like delicate flavors of salt intermingling tactfully with the food--whether it's fried eggs or fine French cooking--buy fleur de sel. Our most popular salt product is a starter set of six salts that gives you a toolbox of three foundation salts and three playful salts, including a smoked salt from Kauai, along with a little guide booklet. The most important thing is to challenge your preconceived ideas about salting--and don't be afraid to experiment.
What are three types of salt that every home cook should have? Sel gris, fleur de sel, and flake. Sel gris for finishing hearty foods and for all around cooking. Fleur de sel for sprinkling over most foods just before plating or at the table while eating. Flake salts for pizzazz.
The Meadow originated in Portland. How long has it been in operation there and how did it come to NYC? We opened our shop in Portland Oregon five years ago. We launched our website www.atthemeadow.net a few months later. We started serving restaurants with wholesale salt, salt training, and menu consultation shortly after that. We opened in New York in October because we love New Yorkers. Jennifer and I have both lived in NYC (I was born on Perry Street!) and can't survive without spending lots of time there.
You often have events, lectures and classes. Tell us a little bit about what you've done in the past and what's coming up? We've got an Intro to Artisan Salt Class on April 4 and a 10 Most Wanted Chocolate Bars Class on April 2. We'll have about two classes a month. They sell out pretty fast, but a schedule is on our website or people can sign up for our mailing list (which we use very sparingly).
Any particularly unique types of salt or other products in your inventory that aren't available elsewhere that Serious Eaters should check out? We have a few hundred chocolate bars and several dozen bitters that are not available elsewhere in New York, to my knowledge. Especially fun is a selection of Portland-made chocolates, fleur de sel caramels, bacon chocolate caramels, and crazy stuff like that. All very delicious and a little unusual by any standard. I'd check out the bergamot syrup for cocktails or the seasonal Whisky Barrel Aged cocktail bitters just back in from Fee Brothers. Salt wise, we have an incredible new house fleur de sel, The Meadow fleur de sel, which can be used as an incredible finishing salt or all around cooking salt. Himalayan salt blocks, these huge luminous pink bricks of 500 million year old salt, are a blast to cook or serve food on. We also sell a big selection of Peugeot salt and pepper mills.
About the author: Laren Spirer is yet another lawyer (and freelance writer) obsessed with food and drink. When she's not eating, drinking, cooking, or thinking about what to eat, drink, or cook, she can often be found cycling, running, or swimming, likely in preparation for a triathlon. She also blogs at Sweet Blog o' Mine and tweets at @sweetblogomine.