Most of us have heard the phrase, ‘The cure for anything is salt water – sweat, tears or the sea”. So who wouldn’t want your own bottled version?
For me, the best recipes are born from great stories and histories, just as some of the best products are born from a single, random thought. An idea that takes shape, palpitates and convulses, gasping itself into consciousness despite the number of people trying to stifle it.
Steve and Sharon Cook built the Maine Sea Salt Company around one of those ‘crazy’ ideas almost twenty years ago. In 1998, Steve was unemployed, and wanting to start his own business. They loved Maine, food and cooking, and sea salt seemed a natural fit. But they had no experience, and the industry was so new that no one else was doing it here. Doing what most Mainers would think twice about – they jumped in the deep end and gave it their all.
Their first product was one ounce packets of sea salt, for use when cooking lobster. Steve and Sharon proudly tried to sell their wares at the local fish markets and received a less-than-welcoming response. Fisherman and customers alike thought they were crazy, and didn’t want anything to do with them or their product. (Can you envision this guy wandering the docks and markets offering salt…you know, from the sea? I can just imaging the response!) Steve took a bold chance and offered their product for free, and the customers returned for more. Repeatedly.
That’s when they knew they might be on to something.
Seventeen years later, they are still going strong. The methods have been modified a couple of times, and they’ve become a lot more business and market savvy – but the product is still made personally, using sustainable methods and an artist’s (and farmers) touch. There are no chemicals added (bonus!) and none of the naturally occurring trace minerals removed from the salt – you get pure, natural sea salt.
The majority of the process is solar-powered too; they do not use kilns or evaporator like some companies do. Their salts are strictly from the Maine coast (Buck’s Harbor) and not imported from outside the state or country, something Steve is very passionate about maintaining. Even the non-salt offerings are from artisans in the United States – not mass-produced or from out of the country.
Their process to produce sea salt takes about three weeks, weather permitting, from ocean to packaged product. Every 7-10 days, they get two tanker truckloads full of fresh seawater pumped in. Sixteen thousand gallons of seawater equates to approximately 3000 pounds of salt. Once dried in the greenhouses, the salt is brought indoors it’s ground lightly and towel-dried using a method Steve has developed over the years. When finished, the salt is separated into different bins for various products and packaging. Some salt will be smoked in various ways, some mixed with spices and herbs, and some packaged a pure, clean, natural sea salt.
I got a glimpse of the smoking process, and truthfully – I could have hung out all day. Hickory smoked sea salt is what I have in my house – and I have to tell you, I LOVE it. I use it on many, many things – but especially on seafood and steaks. It has a hearty, smoky flavor than can bring a recipe up a notch. But…let me tell you…I sampled a couple of the other smoked salts and for sure, I need to enlarge my pantry! The applewood smoked sea salt was amazing – lighter, slightly sweeter and so good, even just eating it alone. The maple salt, which they have on occasion, was an interesting blend of traditional Maine favorites as well (hey – there’s a potential partnership!). Some others I need to pick up are the Garlic Salt and Herbes Sal’ees, an herbed salt that’s a nod to Sharon’s Acadian French heritage.
I have to admit, I was pretty ignorant about salt, and I learned a lot about the process. I come from a farming family, so I know nothing about farming is easy, regardless of the product. But for some reason, I thought, “Hey…it’s sea salt….how hard can it be?” Boy, was I wrong! I even learned what a salt pig and salt cellar are used for in a kitchen and dining room!
My trip to Marshfield to visit the Maine Sea Salt Company was no accident. I was making chowder from some leftover lobster (I know, right!? Who has leftover lobster?!), and I was adding my usual smoked sea salt. I was gazing at the grinder bottle (which was almost empty now), lovingly worn and half-melted from being above my very-hot stove. It occurred to me that I had no genuine idea as to how sea salt was processed. With this being a tasty staple product in my kitchen and an authentic Maine company – it seemed a palpable reason for making a road trip. I’m so glad I did!
If you are interested in visiting the Cooks and learning how sea salt is processed, they offer daily tours throughout the season, from 8am to 5pm (call ahead if you’re travelling to make sure, or for larger parties), in Marshfield, Maine. Their products can be found locally in many local retail shops, and can also be purchased on their website, www.maineseasalt.com.