The best salt on earth?

Only the finest flakes will do for the likes of Heston and Ferran – not to mention the makers of posh chocolate bars. Samuel Muston goes in search of the white stuff at Halen Môn Sea Salt

It is 9am on a Thursday. The sky above me is as iron-grey as the sea I’m standing in. It is cold and my Wellington boots are in danger of being overwhelmed by the lapping tide. Lap – water flicks into my boots; lap – oh, there’s a bit more. I am sinking. The problem is the mud. Stir the seabed on this bit of the Anglesey coast and up like a hurricane comes this prehistoric slush. Water that was seconds ago crystal, hard-looking and glassy is suddenly dark – it is like being caught in a desert sandstorm.

David Lea-Wilson, my companion wader, however, moves through the sea like a catamaran, stately, assured, emphatically not sinking. But then he does this every day. Has done it every day since 1996, in fact, when he first started Halen Môn Sea Salt.

“Look through this,” he says, and holds up a telescope to the Snowdonian hills across the water. I look. Instead of snow-flecked peaks, I see a sodium gauge. He is checking there is enough salt in the sea. “Yes, it may seem strange but the rain affects the dilution and I need 4.5 per cent sodium to start pumping,” he says.

It is low-tech, but that is the way with Halen Môn; they like the old-fashioned ways, doing things by hand, and so do their customers. “It isn’t just some conceit: to get our product in the best shape it can be – pure, evenly-sized flakes, with our characteristic taste – we’ve found we need to do most things by hand,” David says. “I bought a £35,000 machine for sieving salt flakes – but Jim and Gary do a much better job.”

It is an expensive enterprise extracting, rinsing, evaporating, sieving and then packing millions of diaphanous crystals of salt by hand in a five-day sea-to-table operation. (In Majorca they just trap some water in a pan and let the sun do the business). David’s Pure White Sea Salt sells for £3.50 per 100g; Saxa Coarse Sea Salt, on the other hand, costs 75p for 350g. Yet business booms. In 10 years the company has grown three-fold, it employs 16 people and punters in 23 countries clamour to buy its stuff (often paying as much for the postage as the salt). But then a bowl of Saxo doesn’t shine like a window at Tiffany.

“Hold it,” I hear you say, “ go no further.” Isn’t this all just some metropolitan affectation? Salt is just salt, no? Well, yes and no. Until the 19th century, nearly all sea salt was made like David’s. Maldon Sea Salt, his closest competitor, has been making it this way for 200 years. But then salt deposits were discovered in Nantwich, Cheshire, and mechanisation changed not just the landscape of that county, but the landscape of our diet.

Table salt today is cheap and refined and much of it also contains an additive called sodium ferrocyanide, a cyanide compound that prevents salt “caking” when being moved around. “I personally,” says David Lea-Wilson, “would prefer not to be putting that into my body”.

They don’t worry about “caking” here in Anglesey – Jim and Gary stop that. “We add nothing here. You will find only 60 trace elements in our stuff. Selenium, zinc iodine, things essential for life. And you will also find a specific flavour – sweetness.” As counterintuitive as it sounds, after nibbling a few flakes, you can indeed detect a little mellow sweetness. (It is the same sweetness I taste in a mussel purloined from a colleague’s plate at lunchtime.)

Don’t take my word, though. Heston uses Halen Môn at The Fat Duck (apparently, he likes the fact it melts slowly when placed on hot food, as well as the flavour), Obama’s favourite chocolate – Fran’s salted caramel – has a sprinkle of Halen Môn on the top, Ben Spalding has commissioned them to produce snow-flake-size crystals for one of his dishes and when the great Ferran Adrià used to add his one flake of sea salt to the oysters he served at now-closed El Bulli, and that flake was supplied by Anglesey’s David Lea-Wilson.

Sea salt, of all types, from many places, has also become the flavouring du jour of chocolate bars, the little explosions of salt adding new joys of texture and flavour to the cocoa and milk melting in your mouth. It is a fine way to use your daily sodium quota. And it is now a huge growth business. Lindt adds salt to several of its  dark chocolate bars, Rococo specialise in it, and Amelia Rope uses it to great effect in her pale lime and sea salt  bar. Quality is not, however, uniform.

“Lots of people have tried it” says Micah Carr-Hill, head of taste at Green & Blacks, “but not always so well. It took us a year and half to perfect ours.” The first step to getting the perfect bar was getting the perfect salt – and that’s where David came in. “We came to Anglesey because it really is the best – that sweetness, the lack of spiky magnesium, it makes it perfect for us,” he says. “We knew what we wanted from the outset and it was Halen Môn”

At first, though, it appeared the collaboration might not get off the ground, Halen Môn not producing a flake small enough to fit the Archimedes screw that is used to distribute sea salt evenly through a bar. After some cajoling and a promise to display the Halen Môn branding on the bars, David changed his production method to produce the necessary flake.

The finished product sits before me. A bar of 37 per cent Dominican Republic cocoa solids, picked out by flakes of the Anglesey salt. The salt, as Dom Ramsey of Chocablog points out: “Has the effect of bringing out the caramel notes in the chocolate.” For an upper-range supermarket bar, it has a dazzling flavour.

Salt has always been important, part of the deep grammar of cookery. The Romans recognised it, giving soldiers an allowance to buy it, their “salarium”, the origin of the word salary. In Paris, the historical home of the culinary muse, a tax on it fanned the sparks of revolution, and Gandhi’s salt marches helped in the emancipation of 350 million Indians. But today, things have gone further. In New York, spend enough money on dinner and you might make a new friend – a selmelier, to help you choose between Himalayan and black, smoked or salt touched with vanilla (very good in porridge and with fish).

It is also one of the overt passions in home cookery. Why? Adam Gopnik, staff writer at The New Yorker, has a point when he writes that while we might not have as much skill as pro-cooks, we certainly have as much salt to throw into our dishes; and they throw a lot. “It is,” Gopnik writes, “a sign of seriousness even when you don’t have the real tools of seriousness at hand.” We bond with our televisual heroes over salt shakers.

And yet, while sodium is tasty, and essential for maintaining the osmotic balance of our cells, preventing us drying up like over-done minute steak, it is also linked to a litany of ailments. High blood pressure – check; heart disease –check; strokes – check. All the baddies. “The thing is,” says co-founder of Halen Môn, Alison Lea-Wilson, “we know having too much is not good for you. But we need some, so why not use your recommended daily intake of sodium [2.4 grams] on the best you can get.”

One can, of course, confect justifications for adding salt to dishes that are as elaborate as a royal wedding cake. It may indeed bring out caramel notes from chocolate and a brined turkey may taste that bit more like the ones your granny used to buy. These things are true. But what they also taste like, and what all primates love, is white, crystalline, snowy sea salt.

News
More than 90 years of car history are coming to an end with the abolition of the paper car-tax disc
newsThis and other facts you never knew about the paper circle - completely obsolete today
News
people'I’d rather have Fred and Rose West quote my characters on childcare'
Life and Style
The new Windows 10 Start Menu
tech
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey
comedyFirst national survey reveals Britain’s comedic tastes
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Travel
Bruce Chatwin's novel 'On the Black Hill' was set at The Vision Farm
travelOne of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
Sport
footballManchester City 1 Roma 1: Result leaves Premier League champions in danger of not progressing
Arts and Entertainment
Gay and OK: a scene from 'Pride'
filmsUS film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
News
i100
Life and Style
Magic roundabouts: the gyratory system that has excited enthusiasts in Swindon
motoringJust who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Arts and Entertainment
Hilary North's 'How My Life Has Changed', 2001
booksWell it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Management Accountant

    28,000 to 32,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: Our client, a hospitality busi...

    Food and Beverage Cost Controller

    18,000 to 20,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: Our fantastic leisure client i...

    Marketing Analyst / Marketing Executive

    £20 - 24k: Guru Careers: A Marketing Analyst / Marketing Executive is needed t...

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    Day In a Page

    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
    Why do we like making lists?

    Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

    Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
    Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

    A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

    As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
    Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

    Paris Fashion Week

    Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
    Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

    Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

    One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
    10 best children's nightwear

    10 best children's nightwear

    Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
    Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

    Manchester City vs Roma

    Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
    Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

    Trouble on the Tyne

    Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?