Halen Môn sea salt is so good – and so envied – that it’s won EU-protected status. Co-founder Alison Lea-Wilson tells us why their Anglesey salt is tops, and shares a favourite recipe.
Salt is one of the essential ingredients, used in almost every dish to season and to highlight flavour. But according to Alison Lea-Wilson, co-owner with husband David of Halen Môn (Anglesey Sea Salt) in north Wales, it’s not quite as basic as it sounds, nor is it to be treated lightly when it comes to the matter of quality. Halen Môn gained the coveted Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) from the European Union last year, thanks to the purity of its product. Lea-Wilson explains how oysters, seahorses and mussels led her to discover the unique salt they had on their doorstep.
How did you get into making salt?
It’s complicated. Really, it all started when we were students in Bangor. We wanted to supplement our incomes, so we decided to grow oysters. We took them to oyster bars in the northwest and sold them in places like Blackpool. That grew to include selling fish, lobsters and crabs wholesale. People used to come and look at the lobsters in the tanks, and we thought: if they’ll come to see them, why don’t we build an aquarium? At its peak we had 3,000 visitors a day in the season, which was quite good for Anglesey, because it’s a rural area.
The tourist season is quite brief and, although you can make a good living from May to September, we were looking for another business to run that was complementary to the aquarium, and that would use the knowledge and skills we’d gained. We knew the water was pure because, as well as oysters, we bred British seahorses, which are very picky about the water they live in. They were happy in our water, so we knew it was clean.
We took a pan of water and put it on our Aga and made sea salt. That’s how it began.
Is it really that simple to make?
It’s like making bread – it’s deceptively simple. Bread has three ingredients, and sea salt only has one, but it’s what you do with it that makes it work – or not. Having said that, the expertise is in the speed, the care, and the cleanliness of the water, which all affect the way the salt turns out. It took us a long time to perfect the method.
What does the process of making sea salt involve?
We have a pipe – I can look out of my office and see it – which goes out into the Menai Strait and, at any time of the tide, draws water in. By the time it gets to us, the water has already been filtered by the sand and by a mussel bed. We then run it through carbon filters to concentrate it further. Sea water is at about three per cent concentrate, and we take it to ten or eleven per cent in a machine that works like a still. That water then flows into crystallisers. They’re tanks, like baths with heaters above, which mimic the sun. In France they have ditches, which they dig in clay, and the sun dries the water out as it flows through. We don’t have that luxury in Wales! But, then again, you don’t get dogs or animals walking in the water, so I think it’s possibly cleaner and we can control it. The salt crystals form on the surface, and then drop to the bottom of the tank, and once a day we collect the flakes.
Does the weather have an impact?
We test the water every day for salinity and to check that there’s nothing harmful. If it rains heavily the salt content will be different from what you get on a warm sunny day with lots of wind. The concentration of salt in the water changes every day; on average it takes eleven days from collecting the sea water to the salt being packed and sent off.
What do people use the salt for?
The most unusual use I’ve come across is for people performing exorcisms – our salt is considered very pure and therefore very powerful. There’s also a whole world of people who will use it for elixirs of life. They’ve never sent us samples but they do tell us, which is lovely. They’re the most unusual uses. More usually, Halen Môn is used in soap, butter, potato wedges, crisps, miso and soy sauce, and lots of restaurants. I use very little in cooking, and prefer to add it at the table. You only need a very small amount because ours has a stronger flavour. One local baker uses only a fifth of the salt he used to use in his biscuits since he started using our salt.
Isn’t salt bad for us, though?
Well, if you tend to want salt in excess you might as well have ours because you need less of it to get the same amount of flavour. Humans do need salt in their diet, so you might as well have good mineral balance in the salt that you eat. Salt is much more than just a basic ingredient. It enhances other flavours, and cuts out bitterness – if you use proper salt, that is. If you use table salt you get a bitter aftertaste from the anti-caking agents, and you don’t benefit from the trace elements because they’ve been stripped out.
What makes Halen Môn sea salt different?
One thing is that we rinse the flakes in brine. The salt doesn’t dissolve, because when the brine is at a certain saturation it can’t hold any more salt. The rinsing gives us the correct balance of minerals. Mediterranean sea salt has a chalky texture from the excess calcium. Our salt looks very sparkly, has a better taste, texture and appearance. The Protected Designation of Origin recognises the unique qualities of the water. There’s no heavy industry in the Menai Strait, and it’s an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The mussel beds help, too. It’s as if everything conspires to make it good.
Read the original article as it appeared on Flavour