Deep in the rock salt mine of Loulé, Manuel Rebocho handles his saw with skill, cutting the harsh and rough rocks to turn them into small rectangular blocks.
The production of rock salt for cooking purposes is the latest potential of the Campina de Cima Mine.
The calendar tells us that fall is fast approaching, although it still feels much like summer. It is almost evening, but the sun is still hot as the group is preparing to descend deep into the mine of Campina de Cima, in Loulé, to see how rock salt is extracted. The descent into the mine is a first for almost everyone except for the miners. Engineer Cátia Barradas distributes helmets and lanterns and explains the safety rules, before leading the group towards the narrow lift. Pedro Loureiro, general manager of QualHouse – a company active in the distribution of food products and CUF's partner, is the greatest enthusiast of this vertical journey 230 metres down into the earth where everything is salt. Pedro will be the one explaining the mine's production latest use. Pedro Loureiro is accompanied by Miguel de Sousa Otto, a wine producer and long-time friend, and a film crew, who are overwhelmed by the science fiction scenery they discover: miles and miles of beautiful underground galleries covered with salt.
At that time of day the traffic of vehicles has ceased and machinery has stopped, however, there's a muffled sound down ahead. The group follows the sound, while listening to Cátia Barradas explaining about the mine’s salt production. Rock salt was largely used in the chemical industry in Estarreja, but now, it is mostly used in the feed industry and the de-frosting of roads. It is marketed in Portugal and exported to Spain and France, and other European countries. It now has an additional use.
As the group approaches, the muffled sound becomes more and more strident, as if we were entering a locksmith workshop. The group ends up in a gallery where Manuel Rebocho skilfully handles a stone cutter. This disk-shaped cutter allows to cut harsh salt rocks into small perfect rectangular blocks, with the right size to go into the oven, on the stove or to be placed on the table over a lamp. Manuel Rebocho cuts an average of 25 small blocks per day. «everything has to be done very very carefully. A wrongly made cut and the rock can no longer used.», he says.
It was Pedro Loureiro who had the idea to promote the use of rock salt in the kitchen. «The first time I saw rock salt being used in cooking was at a fair in Greece, a couple of years ago. I kept thinking about it», says this agriculture engineer who works in the food industry. «The next step was finding a partner that produced rock salt. CUF was the natural option as it is the only company in Portugal exploiting rock salt», and he added: «I had to overcome the problem of the disk saws. I was not easy to find a disk that did not need water to cool off the blade, as a hot blade dissolves the rock salt.»
Pedro Loureiro and Miguel de Sousa Otto have already tried rock salt in cooking and speak of its many advantages. «Just earlier today we cooked a nice codfish fillet and a piece of beef with asparagus. They were delicious», says the wine producer: «We heated the rocks in the oven at 180 degrees Celsius and then put them on the table as they retain the heat for another hour. We placed the codfish and the beef on the table without any seasoning, and the food absorbed the salt from the rock in the right proportion. Simply delicious.»
Alexandre Andrade, manager of the Campinha de Cima mine is also very excited with the production of rock salt for cooking: «It is always very interesting to discover additional uses for our raw material.»
«The next step now is to widen the market of rock salt in cooking. We are already contacting our best chefs», says Pedro Loureiro. «I think that we have all we need to bring magic to the table, served with a million year-old story.» he concludes.