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.