Is 'Pure' Artisanal Sea Salt Actually Worth the Price?
In case you hadn’t noticed, there’s a revolution happening in salt. The commodity salt many chefs routinely use is being pushed aside for the good stuff—high-grade and uncut. And why not? Chefs and diners alike deserve better salt, which is arguably the single most important ingredient in the kitchen.
Luckily, Saltverk, a salt producer in Djúpvegur, Iceland, is ready to meet that demand. “It’s as natural as you can get,” says Gunnar Gíslason, a native Icelander and chef at the Michelin-starred Nordic restaurant, Agern, who uses Saltverk on everything. "It’s literally just sea water and geothermal heat. It could not be done any greener.”
Nestled on the shores of a small fjord, the Saltverk headquarters at first looks like a small homestead on the outskirts of humanity—three small buildings, that’s it. But looks can be deceiving; a lot happens here.
First, water from the pristine fjord (20 meters away) is pumped into a large wooden house. There, the water is boiled down to a concentrated brine before getting transferred to the salt pans in a second building. “The brine is condensed in the pans even further to reach a 28 percent salinity,” Björn Jónsson, the owner and founder of Saltverk, says. “Salt crystals form at the top and fall to the bottom.” Lush, stark white flakes of salt are then fished out with perforated shovels and dried. And, let me remind you, this is all done with natural, geothermal heat. They leave a zero carbon footprint. According to Jónsson, the geothermal hot springs generate enough energy to power a town of 3,000 people. But in this case, it's harnessed to create 10,000 kilos of salt a week.
A former engineer, Jónsson started making Icelandic salt in 2011, after another engineer friend wondered out loud why there was no salt from Iceland. ("We have the salt water and energy. Why not?") He can’t take credit for finding the perfect spot, though—Danish kings made salt here more than 250 years ago. He took his first test batch—only 200 grams (made on a summer vacation)—directly to Gíslason, who at the time ran the kitchen at Dill. “Gunnar had tried making salt himself,” Jónsson says. “But after he tasted mine, he said, 'Go make more now!' It snowballed from there.”
He continues, “The care we take with our product pays off, just like a wine or meat producer. We have a raw material from nature, no chemicals or anti-caking agents, which I can imagine aren't very good for you.” The best feedback he gets is still from the chefs he sells to, as he explains the different tastes he gets depending on how deep in the water he goes. “Some of them report back an almost umami taste and smell.”
Over time, he also developed a few flavors of salt: licorice, arctic thyme and seaweed among them. “Salt becomes very interesting when it interacts with food,” Jónsson explains. “My kids love sprinkling the licorice salt on their morning porridge; I add a pinch of the pure stuff at the end of anything I cook.”
Now, his salt has gone from being sold not only to the best restaurants in Scandinavia, but to the entire globe. What does he think of all his success? “I’m an Icelander,” he says, smiling. "I love taking a part of it and putting it out there in the world—I’m proud of my roots."
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