Flavor from the earth and sea.
Story by Jill Gleeson
Salt is the stuff of life. It infuses our oceans, which average 3.5 percent salinity. It’s in our bodies, too: a typical-sized adult is comprised of around 100 grams of sodium chloride. Of course, salt has long been used for preserving and seasoning food, but it’s responsible for more than keeping grub fresh and flavorful. Humans need to ingest salt to live, something our ancestors must have guessed; salus, the Latin word for health, originated from sal (salt). Among other bodily functions, sodium helps our muscles to contract and our blood to circulate. It’s crucial to preventing dehydration, too.
While physicians still caution us about too much salt consumption, it seems the mineral is finally getting its due. Artisanal producers across the country are now offering up sodium procured from sea and soil that add subtle but savory flavors to recipes and dishes.
Tucked away on remote and unspoiled Hatteras Island in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, Hatteras Saltworks is the brainchild of Shaena and Brian McMahon, who have been hand-picking and -packaging salt in their NCDA-approved facility for three years. But first they begin their unique process by harvesting pristine, mineral-rich ocean water off the coast of the island, at the storied spot where the Gulf Stream and Labrador Current meet in the northwest corner of the Sargasso Sea, the only sea in the world that isn’t bordered by land.
As Shaena McMahon explains, “We have a pipe set out about 550 feet at Avon Pier, which enables us to get past the breaking waves and collect the cleanest water….we also use a three-part filtration system Brian developed, so we’re very happy with the quality of our source water.”
This water is evaporated in ingenious solar ovens made from recycled glass doors the McMahons source in the Outer Banks. The Earth-friendly process takes about 30 to 45 days, allowing for greater nutrient retention. “We always liked making salt with our son, Declan,” Shaena McMahon says. “We decided one day to make it more than a hobby, and it’s been trial and error. We learned quickly that boiling it was not the best way to do it—you burn a lot of electricity and the quality of the crystals was not what I liked, and what I knew what we could get through solar evaporation. Brian came up with our system.”
Today, Hatteras Saltworks products are available at select shops and via mail order. In addition to unflavored sea salt, the McMahons offer a smoked pecan version that’s perfect for desserts, as well as rosemary sea salt that Shaena McMahon recommends using in hearty meals. New flavors including lavender sea salt, and perhaps a pepper salt will debut soon.
Get a lip-licking taste of Hatteras Saltworks at Heart in Duck, North Carolina. According to Shaena, “They use our sea salt in their specialties. One we love is their Signature Grilled Pineapple Margarita with our smoked pecan wood sea salt.”
J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works
The Dickinsons know sodium. For seven generations, since 1817, the family has been producing salt in West Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains. Brother-and sister-team Nancy Bruns and Lewis Payne have continued the tradition, returning to their kinfolk’s two-century-old farm in Malden, hand-harvesting a rare salt straight from the earth for J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works.
“There are several factors that contribute to the unique characteristics of our salt,” notes Bruns. “The source, the ancient Iapetus Ocean, has been trapped deep under the Appalachian Mountains for millions of years. It has not been contaminated and affected by the items that get into our surface oceans. The minerality of our salt is unique as well. It contains six percent trace minerals which give it a bright, clean flavor. You actually use less of our salt because it is so flavorful. The texture holds up on food and gives a nice burst of flavor when you eat. Chefs all over the country appreciate it for these characteristics.”
J.Q. Dickinson salt can be found in shops and restaurants from Anchorage, Alaska to Marietta, Georgia. You can also order a wide variety of nifty products, including popcorn salt, craft cocktail salt and finishing salt, from the online store.
Visit the J. Q. Dickinson family farm to learn about the natural process and salt-making history. Tours are offered from mid-April to November every Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Jacobsen Salt Co.
The nationally-recognized Jacobsen Salt Co., located in the hipster hotbed of Portland, Oregon, is following in some hallowed, historic footsteps. Founded in 2011, the purveyor notes it’s the “first company to harvest salt in the Pacific Northwest since Lewis & Clark built their salt works in 1805.”
Jacobsen pumps cold, clear water from the oyster beds of the Pacific Coast’s Netarts Bay, about 80 miles west of Portland. The oysters naturally filter out pollutants, creating high salinity water perfect for boiling down to produce salt. The resulting flake, grinding and kosher salts, which all boast a “unique, flaky crunch,” according to the company, are then are hand-graded and -sorted.
Touted on “The Tonight Show” by celebrity chef April Bloomfield, Jacobsen salts are sold by tony retailers like Williams Sonoma as well as on the Jacobsen website where you can find both unflavored varieties as well as salts infused with delicacies like ghost chili and white truffle.
Sample Jacobsen Salt Co. products at its Portland Marketplace & Tasting Room. Complimentary tastings of salts and honeys are offered daily.