Monday, July 20, 2015

Sooke Farm Tour part 1

Yesterday, 19 July 2015, was the annual Sooke Farm and Food Tour, organized by Sooke Region Food CHI (Community Health Initiative). There were eight stops on the tour, and it seemed like a good way to get to know some of our new neighbours and start to integrate into the community.
We, Paula and I, started our tour with a visit to Saltwest Naturals, our local salt production headquarters. Jessica and Jeff Abel have a small, artisanal operation producing a range of salt products from local sea water. When we arrived, a little after 11 am, the temperature in the “greenhouse” was already 55°C, and the day hadn't really got going yet.
Jeff walked us through the process of making salt: collecting, concentrating, evaporating, washing, and then any final preparation.  Collection is done a few hundred litres at a time, filling a 1600 litre tank. The first step is to concentrate the seawater. Jeff mentioned that our local waters are only about 2.5% salt, much lower than is common. This is an artifact of the tremendous amount of fresh water than pours into the ocean. The local waters are also higher in magnesium (which, if left in the salt in the amount it comes naturally, makes salt taste bitter), and also a broad spectrum of other minerals (a broader spectrum, but lower concentration than Himalayan pink salt blocks that are so popular).
Saltwest uses a small reverse osmosis system to concentrate the brine from 2.5% to about 5% (nifty tool: the refractometer. A few drops spread on a screen, and you can check the salt content of the water).
Handheld Refractometer
Fernando G. (FGM)

CC BY-SA 3.0

 The demineralized pure water that comes from the system is bottled and sold as Canada's first desalinated bottled water.
The brine then gets split between two processes; the first is the raw boil, where large aluminum stock pots are filled and brought to a boil. Aluminum is used because it resists salt damage even better than stainless steel (I had no idea....). Once the brine is concentrated to about 80%, the heat is lowered to ~155°F and held, until flat crystals of salt begin to form and clump on the top of the water. This is salt flowers, fleur de sel, the prized, ultra-fine salt.
Jeff explaining the fleur de sel process
The other process is to fill trays with the brine, and spread them out in the... well, greenhouse is the word we used, but perhaps brine-house would be more accurate. Very quickly, the brine concentrates and the salt crystallizes out. Once the water is gone, the pans are left overnight, and the salt re-absorbs some moisture from the night air (salt is hydrophilic), making it softer and easier to take out of the evaporation pans.
The greenhouse where the brine is evaporated

Salt forming on the brine

At this point the salt is not yet ready for prime time. The next step is to wash the salt. Yes, in water, which seems to defeat the whole purpose of evaporating the water out in the first place. But a brine solution of 25% salt is the most salt water can carry, so washing salt in this brine means the salt doesn't dissolve. Who knew? Washing also removes much of the excess magnesium from the salt, making it taste much better.
Raw salt before washing

For some of the salt, this is the end of the line; dried in an oven to quickly take the last of the moisture out, packaged, and shipped to one of over 350 distribution points (or “stores” as the lay public calls them ). Other salt is re-brined and cooked with onions and garlic or other plants, and the flavours are infused into the salt. Yet more salt in run through a smoker, adding scent and flavour. Salt is bottled, bagged, or tinned up and shipped out, keeping Jessica and Jeff (and a mother-in-law two days a week) very busy.
Now, if you had asked me four years ago if I wanted to get into the salt-making business, I'd have stared at you like you were nuts. I didn't see it coming—there was Sifto and Morton and that was about it. I'd have been interested in learning how to make salt, but not as a business. Four years later, there's several local salt-works; Saltwest, Vancouver Island Salt Co., and Sea To Sky—which makes “Vancouver's Hottest Salt,” a claim I absolutely believe after having tried some (it's infused with ghost chilies, cayenne, habaneros, and pepper sauce). Jessica was saying that the market had gone from zero to highly competitive in a very short time.
So far, most of the salt makers have remained smaller, artisanal operations, very hands-on. But I fear for the future. Too much competition brings the fear that you might be missing out on something you could have—and that brings concentration rather than co-operation. It becomes easier to buy businesses and fold them together to maximize profit, rather than to co-operate and maximize the number of producers and grow the market. Or the lure of profits brings in outside money to do the damage.
Most of our salt these days is mined salt—salt dug from massive underground deposits or washed from deep deposits. Salt-making is one of those processes that goes way back in human history. Salt-pans are common through much of Europe and the Middle East. Salt is one of the ways Gandhi showed the insanity of colonialism—the British passed laws against Indians making salt from ocean water, in order to maintain a profit-maximizing economic control over the country. Salt is what opened up the Canadian east-coast cod fishery—without salt, European fishermen could not have transported fish from the Grand Banks back to the continent. 

MarkKurlansky's Salt: A World History is an exhaustive look at the effect salt production has had on world history, and is certainly worth a read. 

The chapter on salt in Twinkie, Deconstructed: My Journey to Discover How the Ingredients Found in Processed Foods Are Grown, Mined (Yes, Mined), and Manipulated into What America Eats is also an interesting look into modern North American salt production. 

All uncredited photographs are by me and released under CC BY-SA 3.0 except the covers of Salt And Twinkie Deconstructed, which are copyright by their respective publishers.

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