All at sea

Food - Bee Wilson tells a salty tale

The first time it wasn't there I thought nothing of it. The second time I concluded, bizarrely, that there must have been a sudden run on it that afternoon. The third time I put it down, uncharitably, to inefficient shelf-stackers. At last I tried a different shop. But here, once again, was the same dispiriting message: Maldon sea salt is "temporarily unavailable".

Once you become dependent on Maldon salt, there is no turning back. When you first buy it, you probably save it for the table. Given the cost - about £1.40 for a slight packet of 250g, compared with 85p for 500g of ordinary coarse sea salt or 50p for a hefty kilo of table salt - it seems wasteful to cook with it. Eventually, though, you discover that a tomato sprinkled with flakes of Maldon tastes grand and heroic, while a tomato doused with Saxa simply tastes . . . salty. Before long, it seems crazy not to use it in some kinds of cooking as well. An omelette made with nothing but good fresh eggs, butter, Maldon salt and pepper is a fine supper indeed. A basic salad dressing of oil, vinegar and salt, is sublime when the salt is Maldon, and it's the only sauce necessary for grilled fish or roast potatoes. Suddenly, it seems cheap at the price and you want to sprinkle it on everything.

There must be plenty of us precious souls who feel like this, because Maldon salt is now so popular that demand far outstrips supply. "It's very hard to get hold of," says a spokeswoman. She sounds a little weary, and admits she spends her days fielding calls from customers deprived of their beloved condiment. There's a waiting-list of at least six weeks for all suppliers. No new orders are being taken on. "It's affecting everyone," the Maldon company tells me. "Restaurants, too." Maldon has vanished from many branches of Sainsbury's because the supermarkets receive their order centrally and then "whichever store gets their order in first, gets the salt". The shortage has been exacerbated by this year's bad weather, because rain dilutes the sea water. But the root cause of the scarcity seems to be the prodigious number of recommendations it has received from famous cooks: Nigel, Nigella, the chefs on Ready Steady Cook, Jamie Oliver . . . The Maldon famine began last January, after the publication of a certain How to Cook: Book Two. As Rose Gray of the River Cafe tells me when I call her up to discuss the growing crisis: "It was Delia who did the dirty deed."

But Gray herself bears part of the res-ponsibility. One of the things that makes the simpler River Cafe recipes so good - such as wood-roasted carrots, zucchini carpaccio, steak with rocket or roast partridge with thyme - is their insistence on Maldon salt. Gray, however, now finds the situation "very sad" and thinks that "people are using it too much". Maldon, she believes, should be "treated with huge reverence" and "used for seasoning at the end of cooking", rather than all the way through. For pasta water or for blanching vegetables, the River Cafe uses "lots of coarse sea salt" from Italy or France. Yet Gray admits that there is no real replacement for Maldon. The damp grey sea salts of France, delicious though they are, do not crumble in the fingers as Maldon does. "It's the texture that makes it a joy to use: those perfect pyramid crystals."

Maldon is a coastal town in Essex set on low-lying marshland. The method of making salt there has not changed much since medieval times, though the Maldon Crystal Salt Company has only been going since 1882. Filtered sea-water taken from high tides known as "springs" is boiled and evaporated in large "salt pans", until tiny, hollow, pyramid-shaped salt crystals form. The secret part, the mystery of the pyramids, is the exact temperature to which the water has to be heated. Aficionados find this very exciting. "It's a brilliant, brilliant thing," says Gray.

Still, given the feverish demand for this product, it is odd that there are not more salt-makers on the east coast cashing in. Up until the 14th century, salt was produced by boiling sea water all over England until English salt was edged out by cheaper, imported "bay salt" from Brittany. Surely some Essex entrepreneur will seize the opportunity now. In the meantime, Gray thinks that Maldon should "charge much more, and then people would use it less". She and Ruth Rogers are sourcing other salts in Italy. As for us ordinary Maldon lovers, she recommends that we "try other sea salts" and "stop overusing Maldon". I think it's her fault. She, evidently, thinks it's mine.

Either way, the genie is out of the bottle. Maybe this is just a parable of our times. We all now aspire to the good things in life, but that doesn't mean there are enough of them to go round. And when they run out, we know whom to blame - anyone except ourselves.