Shaking Up Salt
Craft salt farmers go against the grain
Photographs by Matt Eich
Terroir has left the vineyard.
The French concept of terroir has long been a cause célèbre in the wine world. But today the term, which describes the singular taste imparted by a product’s environs, turns up when discussing everything from cider to maple syrup.
Now, it’s salt’s turn.
Salt lovers get ready: A new breed of entrepreneurially minded salt farmers — from Martha’s Vineyard to the Philippines to West Virginia (see sidebar) — is looking to their own backyards.
What Vogue food critic Jeffrey Steingarten called “salt chic” over a decade ago has gone mainstream. Global salt hotspots — France’s fleur de sel, Britain’s Maldon, Himalayan pink salt and a handful of others — are big sellers. This year, global gourmet salt sales are estimated to top $250 million, and the market is expected to grow by over six percent between 2014 and 2019.
But is salt terroir (or merroir, in the case of sea salt) really a thing, or is it just food-world nonsense?
Marjorie O’Malley and her family are salt farmers on secluded Achill Island, off Ireland’s western shore. They harvested their first batch in 2013, boiling seawater (which O’Malley, an accountant by trade, believes to be superior due to wild island winters that “churn and aerate the waters”) on their kitchen stove. Thus, Achill Island Sea Salt was born. Sales are growing weekly (roughly $3.80 buys a little over two-and-a-half ounces) and they’ve moved production into a small commercial kitchen. Ultan Cooke, chef at Western Ireland’s Michelin-starred restaurant Aniar, says, “It has a flavor in its own right, which goes well with fish and, especially, lamb.”
Traditionally, this flavor is what many salt producers avoided; in its pure form, salt — sodium chloride — is strictly a flavor enhancer. “The goal of salt-making was always to make all salt the same and make it all pure white,” says Mark Kurlansky, author of “Salt: A World History.” Until the 20th century, Kurlansky says, many different salts were produced, but when mechanical evaporation took hold, the dream of a reliably pure salt was realized. But the gourmet food movement changed all that. “I guess people got bored with it, so now they want to go back to having basically all these flawed salts,” says Kurlansky, no booster of snooty salt.
Two factors inform salt’s flavor: the shape of the crystal and impurities retained through minimal processing.
“There’s gunk in there,” says Benjamin Wolfe, assistant professor of microbiology at Tufts University. Two factors inform salt’s flavor: the shape of the crystal and impurities retained through minimal processing. The presence of microorganisms can also affect the flavor of some foods. Microbes weren’t thought to live on salt until recently, as its hostility to bacterial life is what makes it an excellent preserver. Wolfe says scientists are “changing our thinking on what salt is and the nature of salt” as they look at how minimally processed versions can serve as “vectors of taste” in fermented foods; in South Korea, scientists have studied the use of Korean sea salt in kimchi.
Impurities — “phytoplankton and bacteria and little bits of dirt,” Wolfe says — can also impart distinct qualities that are more readily apparent. For example, France’s beloved gray salt gets its distinctive color from the salt pans on which it dries.
Impurities and microbes are nothing to worry about “if you’re going to put it on scrambled eggs right away,” says the appropriately named Morton Satin, self-described “salt guru” and vice president of science and research at The Salt Institute. Added to a dish right before serving, microbes don’t have time to grow their numbers. Even in fermented foods, you’d have to consume mountains of salt to ingest a notable number of microbes. “The amount of salt you would be eating would be a bigger problem than a microbial cell or two,” Wolfe says. In fact, the kimchi study speculated that natural sea salt actually encouraged cancer-fighting microorganisms.
Ben Jacobsen, who founded Jacobsen Salt Co. on the Oregon Coast in 2011, is a merroir believer. He tried seawater from 30 different locations before finding one that produced the flavor he liked: “very briny with no bitter aftertaste.” (Chef Matt Abdoo of New York’s culinary temple Del Posto says the salt “has a clean flavor with a fantastic textural component.”) But local isn’t enough, Jacobsen says, unless you back it up with quality. Of the dozen or so small salt farmers he’s aware of in the U.S., he says, “A lot of the salts are good, but a lot of the salts are very, very average.”
And local means different things to different people. One Manhattan salt “farm” offers salt produced from Long Island seawater dried on a New York rooftop; the terroir of Midtown holds dubious appeal.
Still, the promise of truly high-quality, local salt has plenty of salt lovers excited — if the subtle flavors aren’t obvious, the connection to a local producer is. It’s just not for the faint of heart. “If you’re a purist and you’re really trying to have consistency,” Wolfe says, “I think you’re going to go with the Mortons.” As for the rest of us, anyone worth her salt knows fortune favors the bold.
Top: Siblings Lewis Payne and Nancy Bruns, owners of JQD Salt-Works in West Virginia, stand with members of their team in the evaporation sun house.