Tip Top ran a stunt in Auckland recently to promote its new chocolate and salted caramel Trumpet. A company delivery truck “broke down” by the park in New Zealand’s media heartland and Instagram epicentre of Grey Lynn, with the hope of generating some social media excitement about its new flavour.
Our biggest ice cream maker needed creative marketing to generate noise – salted caramel, which has been an ascending star of food trends for more than a decade, no longer has the novelty factor to pull on its own. Especially when the mass market version is diluted of its defining feature: the dribble of salted caramel on the Trumpet doesn’t taste especially salty, it just tastes like (perfectly nice) caramel.
What I’m really looking for with salted caramel is a few flecks of ‘fleur de sel’, those crystals of salt that inject a crunchy, salty burst. If you’re looking for a supermarket product that delivers this I can recommend the Lindt chocolate bar ‘caramel with a touch of sea salt’.
Food trends start with an idea at a high-end restaurant or with an unknown ethnic ingredient or dish, and make their way into high-end cooking magazines, mid-upper range restaurants or premium artisan products at farmer’s markets or specialty food stores, into the women’s mags, and finally, plonk, into the mainstream through fast food restaurants or supermarkets. Where they become the new normal, and you stop noticing it. So a pork sandwich isn’t pork any more, it’s always a pulled pork sandwich; caramel isn’t caramel anymore, it’s always salted caramel.
Salted caramels originate from Brittany in France. While sounding like they should be a much older local delicacy they were invented by Henri Le Roux, a Breton chocolatier and caramelier in 1977.
Brittany was one of the only counties in France where butter contains salt. Ancient taxation laws meant salt was traditionally taxed in other parts of France, but not in Brittany (or the Low Countries) so it is only Breton butter that was distinctively salty.
Le Roux opened a chocolate shop and began experimenting with caramels made with salted butter (a signature variety included crushed walnuts, hazelnuts and almonds for added texture), and he topped them with flaky sea salt, like fleur de sel.
He must have got used to refuting that so-and-so’s grandmother made salted butter caramels before him in Brittany, saying he has found no written recipe or record. The French were obviously happy with that, voting his salted butter caramels the French sweet of the year in 1980.
When Pierre Hermé, the Parisian pastry chef, invented a salted caramel macaron in the late 1990s, chefs everywhere went crazy for it, and salted caramel went international.
By 2008, the NY Times was calling salted caramel the flavour of the year, arguing then that it had hit ‘stage five’ – the mass market point for food trends (yes our NZ salted caramel peak is seven years delayed…) 2008 was the year Haagen Dazs released a salted caramel ice cream flavour in the US and when Wal Mart released salted caramel truffles.
That NY Times article attributes a few parallel factors to the ascendancy of salted caramel: the fact Americans have always had a liking for salty-sweet, eg cracker jack popcorn and snickers bars; the South American confection dulce de leche putting caramel back on the Western food map in the 2000s; and the rise of specialty salt flakes like fleur de sel from France or Maldon from England elevating the status of plain old salt, making them a suitable companion to fine sweets.