PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 March, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 March, 2003, 12:00am

IT SEEMS ONLY LOGICAL to start a new column on spices, herbs and flavourings by focusing on the most widely used: salt. Once an expensive and rare commodity, today we sprinkle salt into our soups, stews and stir-fries almost without thought. Salt isn't used solely to enhance flavour: it is also a desiccant and preservative for dried sausages, preserved meats and fish.

Salt is mined (rock salt) or evaporated from seawater (sea salt) across the globe: England, France, Hawaii, India and elsewhere. It has a different flavour and degree of saltiness depending on where it is from, how it is processed and the amount and type of impurities it contains. It can be finely textured or rough, in flakes or crystals, and in colours ranging from white to red to black. Probably the most commonly used is refined table salt, a fine-grained variety that is saltier than rough-grained alternatives. It often has added potassium iodide, which helps prevent hypothyroidism in people with limited diets, although most of us now consume enough iodine through seafood, vegetables and dairy products.

I have four salts in my kitchen cupboard. For cooking I use either an inexpensive kosher salt (so-called because it is used to extract blood from meat to make it acceptable under Jewish dietary law) or Maldon Sea Salt, a light, flaky variety from England. I add a fine-grained sea salt to pastry: it's important to use small crystals in dough for even distribution. And for finishing a dish I use either Maldon in a grinder or - when I want a crunch - fleur de sel from France, which is skimmed by hand from pools of evaporating seawater.

Roast potatoes

These potatoes are roasted for a long time to give them a wonderfully crusty exterior. This recipe calls for two salts, a fine-grained one to flavour the potatoes while they're cooking and rough flakes at the end for a lovely crunch. If you have any rendered chicken or goose fat, substitute it for the olive oil.

1 kg new potatoes, unpeeled

12 or more cloves of garlic, unpeeled

1/4 cup good-quality olive oil, plus extra for the baking dish

Fine-grained sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Fleur de sel or other rough-flaked sea salt

Boil the potatoes in their skins until just tender enough to be pierced with a sharp knife. Do not overcook. Drain the potatoes and cut into quarters. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius. Liberally oil a shallow baking dish and add the potatoes and garlic cloves in one layer. Pour over the oil and toss to coat evenly. Sprinkle lightly with fine-grained sea salt and lots of black pepper and toss again. Place in oven and cook for at least 45 minutes, turning the potatoes occasionally so they become evenly brown and crusty. When ready, the potatoes should have a thick crust and be moist inside. Sprinkle with rough-flaked sea salt and serve.