“Vous êtes professionel du sel?” asked the woman sitting behind the security scanner at Paris’s Charles De Gaulle airport. Am I in the salt business?
What her scanner revealed in my hand luggage was a kilo box of fine Italian sea salt, a kilo bag of coarse Sicilian sea salt, a beautiful glass jar of pastiglie di sale (large tablets of sea salt dosed for pasta water), a small container of lemon-flavored Falksalt salt from Sweden, and a container of fleur de sel from La Camargue in France.
I am not in the salt business. I am an obsessive shopper of food souvenirs. Who needs a postcard or a snow globe? You can’t eat them. I want ingredients to cook with at home that will remind me of the places I’ve been, the flavors I have enjoyed.
In the same carry-on with my salt were five pounds of aged Parmigiano-Reggiano from Peck in Milan, a half dozen green olive breadsticks from Princi bakery (across the street from Peck), seven assorted macarons and a plum tart from Pierre Hermé in Paris, two vacuum packages of Italian pine nuts and three pounds of artisanal Italian dried pasta extruded through gold dies, both purchased at the food hall atop the Rinascente department store across from Milan’s Duomo. Of course the liquids and gels—six bottles of assorted Christine Ferber jams and 750 milliliters of French wine vinaigre—were wrapped in dirty t-shirts and jeans and packed in my checked suitcase. Memories of Italy and France.
I treat my carry-on more like a canvas tote bag at a farmers’ market than a suitcase for toiletries.
But is it legal? There’s a lot of misinformation out there about what you can bring into the country, and even airport agents are not always the best informed. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency (CPB), with input from the USDA and FDA, issues plenty of rules and restrictions, but they are probably more permissive than you think. Olive oil? Yes. Cheese? Oui, almost anything, even raw milk if aged over 60 days. Spices and dried fruit? Check. Coffee? Yes. Fresh fish? Yes. Smoked, salted, canned, or dried fish? You betcha.
Not intended to thwart global galloping gourmets, the stated goals of the CPB restrictions are “to protect community health, preserve the environment, and prevent the introduction of devastating diseases to domestic plants and animals.” That’s a tall order. Think twice before you smuggle in that Mexican lime.
The rules change pretty regularly because they are based on incidence of disease in specific areas and the possibility of bringing it home. They don’t always make obvious sense. For instance, white rice is allowed, brown rice is not. Despite what you will hear from salumeria salespeople at Florence’s Mercato Centrale, meat is almost never permitted—not fresh, not cured, not smoked, not canned, not vacuum packed. You can view the current regulations here.
Still, afraid of cracking under pressure, my husband refuses to mule in food for me, legal or not—save for baked goods from Hermé or Princi, which he considers worth the risk of getting caught.
Mitchell Davis is executive vice president at the James Beard Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.