Cornish sea salt from the Lizard Peninsula is making a name for itself with Britain's top chefs
PUBLISHED: 16:43 08 November 2012 | UPDATED: 22:18 20 February 2013
It is easy to imagine the Lizard peninsula in southernmost Cornwall has remained the same since locals first began farming salt from the sea thousands of years ago.
Salt of the earth
It is easy to imagine the Lizard peninsula in southernmost Cornwall has remained the same since locals first began farming salt from the sea thousands of years ago. Fast-forward, and Cornish sea salt is now beginning to make a name for itself, appearing on the tables of Britains top chefs. Its the same location, but, writes Sarah Ashworth, the production of the white stuff has dramatically changed
PHOTOGRAPHS BY SARAH ASHWORTH
Walking near Coverack Cove, the late Tony Fraser must have been surprised - as many will be when he stumbled upon the Iron Age remains of clay pots, and in turn learnt of Cornwalls salt farming heritage.
As the founder of the Cornish Sea Salt Company later learnt at home, back then the pots would have been heated over gorse and hazel fires to extract the salt from sea water, before exploding as they cooled and were reheated again.
Until 150 years ago, Essex and Cheshire were still home to a thriving salt farming industry. Yet our wet salt was often eclipsed by a drier variety, and unfairly believed to be of a superior quality, being imported from France and Spain. This combined with our far from ideal wet climate, and heavy taxes introduced in the early nineteenth century, meant our salt industry came close to drying out. In 2004, staring at the remains the huts and salt hearths now being eroded by the sea at Trebarveth, Tony had his light bulb moment. Why not produce salt in Cornwall once more?
It was simple in concept, explains Philip Tanswell, the companys chief operations officer, but to make, not so. It involved hard work Tony spent two years meticulously researching the market and production techniques and a pinch of good luck - launching into a recession with no grant funding was not easy.
The sea here is of a 3.5 per cent saline solution. Usually three per cent goes back into the sea
However, the middle of the decade saw a return to scratch cooking and resurgence in the interest of the provenance of food; consumers wanted to buy British, local and sustainable. Today, after a battle convincing the landowners that there was indeed a gap in the market, the companys eco-friendly and low impact site sits a stones throw from the Grade A classified sea water of Porthkerris. Its not far from the original Iron Age site, but as Philip walks through state-of-the-art plant, this is definitely where the similarity ends.
Around 80 cubic meters of sea water an hour is pumped to the site before it embarks on a semi-automated journey through sand filters and UV filtration heaters to kill off any pathogens and concentrate the salty solution.
The team had to reverse the more traditional way of farming salt, where the water is evaporated and the salt extracted, in order to lower its energy usage. The sea here is of a 3.5 per cent saline solution. Usually three per cent goes back into the sea, meaning no damage to the ecosystem. In the final production stages at the crystallisation tanks, heat lamps replicate the suns light and delicate salt crystals hypnotically rise and fall. They are then hand harvested, packed, and sent off.Back outside, Philip mulls over the finished product: The unique geology here creates a salt which is lower in sodium and higher in potassium,magnesium and calcium essential minerals for a healthy working body, he explains. Similarly, its flavour is sweeter and less lip-smacking than its highly processed cousin table salt.
Of course, he is biased, but others are beginning to cotton on to the benefits of natural sea salt over the high sodium content of cheap alternatives. While the NHS is keen to point out that our salt intake should be restricted, many-a-chef will tell you that a pinch enhances, rather than adds to, the flavour of food. The key word being pinch.
Elsewhere, others are also beginning to take notice of sea salts important heritage. The EU funded Ecosal-Atlantic project is working to establish a network of traditional salt making sites from Portugal to Scotland. Acting for the UK branch are heritage consultants Andrew and Annelise Fielding, tasked with providing the missing link between historical sites and attracting sustainable tourism. As part of this, they brought Trebarveths ceramic salt pans back to life, replicating the heating process and producing salt at the Newlyn Art Gallery in May this year.
There arent many Iron Age salt sites in the UK, says Andrew, and the UK already has a historically different production of salt compared with Europe, where the dry and windy climate could dry vast amounts of salt in open air sites known as salinas. But the site at Trebarveth is especially unique as granite slabs were also heated underneath the ceramic pans. Although the site is a legally protected scheduled monument there is no interpretation for passers-by. You really would have no idea you were walking through the middle of an early Iron Age village, he says. On top of raising awareness of this unknown and remote site, Ecosals biggest challenge may be that coastal erosion is slowly eating away at Tebarveths remains. Coastal defence systems may need to be built to protect it.While the ancient site slips away into the sea, the Cornish Sea Salt Companys biggest headache apart from the salt itself which the team is learning corrodes even the highest grade stainless steel is where next? Table salt still reigns supreme in popularity and getting people to know the difference is a hurdle. Sensibly, it wants to adopt the long-term and methodical approach of its founder before taking any big leaps. But along with the enthusiasm and passion of both the company and the Fieldings, Cornish sea salt might just make it back on the map.
Are you worth your salt?
- Adults should eat no more than one full teaspoon (6g) of salt a day, according to the NHS
- Sodium helps to absorb essential nutrients into the body
- Salt is used to make around 14,000 products including pharmaceuticals and soap
- The Jewish tradition of giving salt when moving into a new home symbolises the home as a sanctuary
- Hall means salt inCeltic
- Roman soldiers were paid in salt, hence the word salary.