Caterer CH&Co recently took 40 chefs to an inspiring salt masterclass with Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, as part of its commitment to the Public Health Responsibility Deal. Patricia McAleer reports
With the National Health Service continuing to groan under the costly weight of diet-related illnesses such as diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease, the Government decided it needed the support of the food industry.
And so the Public Health Responsibility Deal was born. Launched earlier this year, it consists of a series of voluntary pledges that health secretary Andrew Lansley has asked businesses to commit to (see below), including the reduction of salt in food so people eat 1g less per day by the end of 2012.
It is estimated that this pledge alone will save the NHS £46m per year within three years and prevent more than 4,000 premature deaths every year.
Having voluntarily signed up to the first two pledges, the independent catering group CH&Co recently gathered 40 of its chefs to take part in an inspiring salt masterclass with Raymond Blanc at his two-Michelin-starred Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons restaurant in Oxfordshire.
The group's food director, former Michelin-starred chef David Cavalier, explained how the event came about. He said: "We wanted to do something to make our chefs stop and think. We had already undertaken in-house training on how to reduce salt and we have introduced many reduced-salt food items throughout our restaurants under our Wellbeing Being Well healthy eating programme."
Amanda Ursell, CH&Co's consultant nutritionist, suggested approaching Blanc because he is well known for being light-handed with his use of salt, having supported the organisation Consensus Action on Salt and Health.
Cavalier added: "This event really drove home the message that as chefs we can be guilty of using too much salt. It turned out to be a lively and stimulating event and sent our chefs off buzzing about how they could reduce salt without compromising flavour."
The Water Test
Blanc's first goal was to recalibrate the chefs' palates to his perception of perfect seasoning. The chefs were asked to blind taste test eight separate litres of water containing between 1 and 8 grams of salt, as well as one that contained just water and another with some lemon juice added.
Juliet Kane, Charlton House chef manager at Paramount Pictures International, found that the water with just 1 gram of salt in was barely perceptible until they'd tried the water with lemon juice in. "When we retasted the water containing 1 gram of salt, it tasted incredibly salty after the acidity of the lemon," she explained. Blanc was demonstrating that acid in the mouth enhances the perception of saltiness, allowing you to use less actual salt.
"There are many other catalysts of flavour such as sugar, acids, herbs and spices," said Blanc. "But for some kinds of cooking, salt will always be essential. Not much of it, but you need it. The trick is to add a little salt, then season and taste."
He went on to describe how in the past we have over-salted our food, often due to the poor quality of the ingredients. "No taste equalled adding lots of salt. And when you produce chickens within eight weeks, what do you expect? Of course they have no taste," he said. Blanc described Britain's high expectation for salt levels in food to be a "national problem" but thankfully, one that we understand needs to be addressed.
The vanguard of CH&Co's healthy eating initiatives, managing director Caroline Fry, said: "We hold a huge responsibility when you consider that we can potentially feed 60,000 people a day across all of our brands, and for many, their main meal of the day, so it's vital that we get it right."
Chicken Stock Test
Blanc then moved on to chicken stock, one half of which he had reduced by half and the other batch by half again, the latter tasting far saltier. The assembled CH&Co chefs were surprised to hear that no salt had been added to either because the celebrated French chef never adds salt to his stocks.
"The truth is that everything has a natural level of sodium, and chicken already has approximately 0.5 to 1 gram per kilo," he explained. "If you reduce stock sufficiently, the flavour enhances naturally. Reduce it too much and you end up with a stock that's too salty and intense."
The chefs were reminded to, if necessary, add a little salt at a time because "you cannot take it out once it's in there"; a pinch of fine ground salt is not the same as a pinch of sea salt, which has larger grains; and never to put salt in at the last moment because it can sit on top of a dish.
Cavalier said: "Three to five grams of salt per litre is ample, and we encourage our chefs to err on the side of caution by aiming for three. The question chefs need to constantly ask themselves is 'does it need it?' Tasting is key. They need to keep a bottle of water nearby to cleanse their palate regularly so they can taste the food properly. It was great to hear Raymond emphasising the same thing."
The final taste test involved small groups of the chefs being asked to season individual sabayon mixtures with a choice of seasonings including cinnamon, crushed star anise, cayenne pepper, curry powder, fresh orange and lemon juice. Blanc helped them work out how to find the right seasoning without compromising flavour by making suggestions and giving his re-seasoned sabayons back for others to taste.
"You could see the passion ooze from every pore of Raymond as he spoke about even the smallest and simplest of ideas, techniques and knowledge," said Dan Kelly, Lusso executive head chef at Norton Rose.
"As a trainee, I was always taught that salt and butter are the best friends you can have in the kitchen. It wasn't until I saw for myself what these two items could do to people, that I really started questioning these ideals. More and more of us are realising that with modern techniques and knowledge we can actually use less of these two products and still deliver great results."
Blanc stressed the importance of sourcing quality ingredients, before giving the chefs a tour of the gardens at Le Manoir to underline the importance of using fresh ingredients. He said: "It was great to talk to a group of passionate, craft-trained chefs who already have a very good perception of salt levels but are hungry to learn how they can improve.
"If every chef who took part in this event goes away and uses a little less salt tomorrow, I will have achieved my goal."
Responsibility Deal pledges
● To reduce salt in food so people eat 1g less per day by end of 2012
● To remove artificial trans fats by end of 2011
● To introduce calorie labelling on standard dishes
● To achieve clear unit labelling on more than 80% of alcohol by 2013
● To increase physical activity through workplace initiatives
● To improve workplace health - by signing up employers will demonstrate commitment to and can play an important role in delivering healthy messages to their employees and subsequently improving public health
how much salt is too much?
Almost everyone in the UK (and the rest of the Western world) eats too much salt. The maximum daily recommended amount in the UK is 6g a day; the current average salt intake is 8.6g a day although many people eat more than this.
People with or considered at risk of high blood pressure should take extra care to ensure they keep their daily salt intake below 6g.
Salt has been linked to:
● High blood pressure
● Cardiovascular disease (including stroke, heart disease and heart failure)
● Kidney disease and kidney stones
● Stomach cancer
● Water retention/bloating
Salt is thought to exacerbate the symptoms of:
● Ménière's disease
Raymond Blanc's tips to reduce salt, not flavour
● Taste, taste and taste again before adding salt
● In most cases, start with seasoning of around 3g per litre - remember, you can add more salt, but you can't take it away
● Adding acid, herbs, spices and bitter tastes can all help you to lower the salt content of your food and to increase its character
● Never add salt at the last minute; it will sit on top of the food and not penetrate it
● Make allowances for when your palate is jaded - for example, after a cold or when you are feeling below par. Cleanse it regularly by drinking water
● Food tastes saltier when it is hot
● It is easy to over-season with rock salt because it is harder to control the amount you are using
● Don't add salt to stock
● Start with fresh, quality produce for optimum flavour
what ch&co chefs had to say
The main thing I got from this event was pure inspiration. It's all too easy to get bogged down and worn out by the daily business and every now and again we all need that reminder and boost of what we love about our trade.
Tom Ellison, Charlton House chef manager, Steria
I particularly enjoyed learning about the garden and the processes they use all year round to plan and provide for the kitchen. I didn't realise how much thought went into gardening. So that was a real eye opener.
Ricardo Grech, Charlton House chef manager, Wolters Kluwer
I knew that lemon was a seasoning but it's the way Raymond presented the idea that opened my mind, not just for salt but to the whole food element.
The attention to detail was magnificent; the gardens full of traditional and exotic herbs and vegetables bursting with flavour, colour, taste - some experimental, some practiced, but all done with precision and knowledge, truly amazing.
Paul Winder, Charlton House chef manager, PZ Cussons
I will be adjusting certain stocks and sauces that will encourage less salt usage and the introduction of other elements in our cooking processes.
Rob Davis, Ampersand head chef, Institution of Mechanical Engineers
Le Manoir is every chef's dream. The message of the evening was received and listened to more because of who was taking the masterclass.
Jim Wealands, Lusso executive chef, Hogan Lovells
I came away with a knowledge that I could build on regarding salt intake and something I could work with and share with the team in order to reduce the amount we use in our kitchen without compromising on flavour.
John Jamieson, Charlton House executive chef, Her Majesty's Treasury