I'll never forget the first time I tasted the combination of salt and caramel. It was 10 years ago, in the dining room of the original Daniel restaurant (now the home of Café Boulud). I had just recently moved to New York and abandoned my vegetarian diet, and everything about the experience that night was new and exciting—the plush fine-dining atmosphere and service, many of the foods on my plate, the serious wines in my glass. But nothing made more of an impression than the soft square of caramel garnished with gray sea salt that appeared toward the end of the evening. Buttery, tangy, sweet and even slightly acidic, the flavors contained in that one piece of candy were a revelation, a poem. It's no coincidence that I quit my job and enrolled in culinary school a few months later.
Confectioners in France have been salting their caramels for centuries—but they don't use ordinary table salt, which is mined and processed to remove the minerals which give the French version its complexity. The waters off the coast of Brittany, where the highly-salted local butter led to the genesis of salted caramels, are exceptionally clean, with a very high mineral concentration. Breton salt farmers use a method of harvest that was first developed by the Celts more than 1,000 years ago, in which seawater is directed into a series of shallow, clay-lined ponds. Once the water evaporates, the farmers rake the salt into pyramids. The sun and wind further dry and bleach the salt, which can then be sold as sel de mer, or sea salt. This product is distinct from fleur de sel, literally "flower of salt," which is the result of a thin film that develops, only when the conditions are exactly right, atop the seawater in the ponds. Fleur de sel's delicate, flaky crystals are considered the cream of the salt crop.
Thanks to the recent efforts of a handful of American candy makers and chefs, we can now experience the rapture of salted caramel without heading to Brittany or making reservations at a fine dining restaurant. Just in time for Valentine's Day and the annual flurry of candy gifting, the Wine Spectator Online editorial team tasted through a selection of salted caramels. Our impressions follow, along with a selection of dessert wines whose flavors echo caramel and spices. Whether you're in love or on the rocks this Valentine's Day, these salty candies should leave you feeling sweet.
Caramels in this category showed a range of flavors and textures. One, from Los Angeles-based Little Flower Candy Company had a smooth, shiny appearance and a soft, taffy-like chew. We liked its classic caramel aroma, the clean, buttery flavor, and the way that the salt really came through on the finish. Another, from French producer Caramels D'Isigny, was much drier and less chewy, with a cake-like interior, hints of coffee in the flavor profile, and a salinity that was subtler than in the first example, but with a deeper sea salt character.
Where to Find Them:
Little Flower Candy Company: $13 (plus tax and shipping) for a half-pound: www.littleflowercandyco.com, (323)551-5948.
Caramels D'Isigny: $7.50 (plus tax and shipping) for 5.3 ounces: www.amazon.com.
We liked two caramels this category. San Francisco-based Recchiuti Confections' caramels are flavored with fleur de sel; Fran's Chocolates, from Seattle, are garnished with gray sea salt. The Recchiuti chocolate was nicely bittersweet, and the caramel had pleasing coffee and toffee flavors. We found the overall taste to be elegantly austere, something that might pair nicely with a Cognac or an Armagnac. Fran's caramels were covered in a sweeter chocolate than that on the Recchiuti caramels, with some fruity liqueur notes in the finish. In comparing the two examples, we found that Fran's caramels played the role of a bold, aggressive Australian Shiraz to the Recchiuti's more refined Northern Rhône Syrah.
Where to Find Them:
Recchiuti Confections : $20 (plus tax and shipping) for four ounces (16 pieces): www.recchiuti.com, (800) 500-3396.
Fran's Chocolates: $22 (plus tax and shipping) for 5.25 ounces (15 pieces): www.franschocolates.com.(800) 422-3726.
And, to complete the experience, here are a handful of recently-rated dessert wines whose flavors echo caramel and spice.
|CHÂTEAU CLOS HAUT-PEYRAGUEY Sauternes 2003||93||$45 / 375ml|
|Fantastic aromas of ultraripe fruit, with dried pineapple, apricot and honey undertones. Full-bodied, with tangy acidity and a spicy, ripe fruit aftertaste. Powerful and rich. Best after 2012. 2,080 cases made.
|THE ROYAL TOKAJI WINE CO. Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos Red Label 2000||93||$32 / 500ml|
|Alluring aromas of gingersnap cookies, apricot and orange marmalade. Sweet, yet deftly balanced by lively structure. Fine lingering finish, where the harmony really shows. Drink now through 2020. 26,000 cases made.
|CAMPBELLS Muscat Rutherglen NV||92||$19 / 375ml|
|Sweet, spicy and reasonably complex, offering dusky plum, exotic spice and Darjeeling tea aromas and flavors. The spice and tea flavors linger on the rich, extensive finish. Drink now. 2,200 cases imported.
|OREMUS Tokaji Late Harvest 2002||92||$12 / 375ml|
|Age—and botrytis—has both mellowed and intensified this tasty Tokaji. Beeswax, leather, dried orange and apricot flavors mingle with the bright structure. Long and tangy on the finish. Think cheese or fresh fruit tarts. Drink now through 2012. 2,666 cases made.
|CHÂTEAU RABAUD-PROMIS Sauternes 2003||92||$47|
|Very concentrated, with a dark gold color and dried pineapple, mango, honey, caramel and butterscotch. Full-bodied, with a long finish. Very, very thick and sweet. A bit monolithic on the palate. Needs time. Best after 2009. 5,000 cases made.
|CAMPBELLS Tokay Rutherglen NV||89||$19 / 375ml|
|Sweet, pale and almost Sherry-like in color. Not as rich and dark as some versions, with pretty spice and light cherry flavors that sing delicately through the generous finish. Drink now. 1,500 cases imported.
|PETER LEHMANN Sémillon Barossa Valley Botrytis 2005||87||$16 / 375ml|
|Sweet, yet balanced with tangy acidity, offering tangerine, honey and gentle spice flavors that linger with balance on the finish. Drink now through 2012. 4,000 cases made.