15. MURCIA, SPAIN
Inspired by a famous recipe in southeastern Spain, a writer learns that baking meats and fish enveloped in a salt crust is a foolproof method for moist, flavorful dishes
Baking with salt,
on the edge of san pedro del pinatar, a fishing village in the Murcia region of Spain’s Mediterranean coast, a vast, irregular grid of salt flats juts out into the sea. Seawater floods them each spring, then evaporates each summer, when workers come to rake out the white- and pink-tinged crystals and pile them in glistening mounds to dry in the sun. These salt flats, or salinas, were created during the Roman Empire and have been in use ever since, providing sal to help season, conserve, and even bake—as is the case for one of Murcia’s most famous dishes, dorada a la sal. The region’s fatty, succulent sea bream, or dorada, is baked whole in a crust of extra-coarse salt, which hardens into a snug shell during baking, allowing the bream to steam entirely in its own juices. The result is a moist, flavorful fish with tender white flakes (and, no, it doesn’t taste too salty).
As I’ve learned during my time living and cooking in Spain, salt baking is widely adaptable and works wonders with whole shrimp and sardines, young chickens or Cornish hens, and even meaty or robust vegetables such as eggplant or onions. It adheres perfectly to the general theory of cooking along the Spanish coast, where the goal is to heighten, rather than disguise, the natural flavors of the freshest ingredients.
Whole fish are ideal for salt baking; the intact skin and head helps prevent too much salt contact with the meat, instead keeping it tender and moist.