Using solar power and good old fashioned ingenuity, the founders of Martha's Vineyard Sea Salt make their salt and then create blends like Lemon Dill, Local Smoked Oak and Naughty. Ali Berlow caught up with them at the West Tisbury Farmers' Market.
Over time salt has been symbolic of friendship, trust, purity and money. When it’s spilled, it’s been interpreted as foretelling evil, bad luck and even betrayal. Take a closer look Leonardo da Vinici’s painting ‘The Last Supper’ and you’ll see the saltcellar by Judas, just tipped over and spilling out in front of him.
Salt is also a critical ingredient in food preservation – a key component to fermentation and also for curing meat and fish. On the Cape, there were around 500 salt works by the time of the Civil War and on the Vineyard there were eleven salt works by 1836. Those all disappeared by 1900 because the salt industry was changing.
The Morton Salt Girl – you know the one on the blue cardboard package with the umbrella? That was was introduced in 1911. ‘When it Rains It Pours’ was not just a clever marketing campaign - Morton salt was a game changer because it didn’t cake-up.
Heidi Feldman says the commercial salts you see in the grinders have had drying agents added to them – that changes the flavor they’ve often had anti-caking agents added to them that changes the flavor and sometimes have been washed by the major companies to take out the minerals and then the minerals are added to other products.
Feldman started Martha’s Vineyard Sea Salt, with her husband Curtis Friedman in 2013. They're reviving salt production on the Island.
When asked to describe her salt, Feldman called it bright, crunchy and intense. A a powerful salt because they don't take the minerals out of it. They're not super drying it. "So it’s still got the brine of the ocean in it. It’s a living salt in your mouth. Yes it’s evaporating at a 120-130 degrees but not in a boiled manner it’s evaporating through natural sunlight."
The process starts at their farm in Vineyard Haven where they pack up a truck with salt-harvesting equipment - wet suits, large intake hoses and tanks that each hold 275 gallons of seawater. Then they head to beach, to collect their water primarily from Katama right fork once they determined with the state of Massachusetts that was the best open flowing source of water . The Vineyard has a lot of captured water but this was exposed shore with flowing water. But that exposure poses challenges like constant wind, wave action and strong rip tides. The collection process takes about 15-20 minutes it’s really very fast and sometimes it can be dangerous.
Back to the farm, the seawater is offloaded from the tanks through filters, catching any sand, little fishes, algae – marine life - as it flows into the evaporator. Then the water is laid out in 100 foot long building that is covered by polycarbonate panels and the sun beats down on it and the solar panel generates the energy to create the fans on the inside and all the moisture convects out. So during the summer with good weather, making sea salt takes about three weeks but in September, October as the angle of the sun wanes and the temperatures cool off the process slows to a three month time frame for making sea salt.
Like alot of other crops, sea salt is also a seasonal production. Winter allows time for experimenting and developing different mixes using herbs such as thyme and dill or smoking the salt. For example, the activated charcoal blend. It’s pitch black – like crumbs scraped from burnt toast – but it’s got a big bite. It's good to use just a little bit on things like cucumbers, radishes, avocado and ripe tomatoes. Or on really good butter.
Feldman says the original idea to make sea salt started with being hungry and looking at too-long a line out the door of a local sandwich shop. Instead of waiting Feldman grabbed a bag of sea salt and vinegar potato chips and was struck by the thought that ‘nobody is making sea salt on Martha’s Vineyard…how is that possible?’ She ran home to tell her husband and were inspired by a friend who lives in Oak Bluffs -off the grid house and he heats his house with a woodstove in the winter and he makes sea salt on his wood stove so that began the process.
Eventually after two or three years it all came together all because of a bag of potato chips.