3:18am

Fri August 2, 2013
The Salt

Massachusetts Revives The Lost Art Of Making Sea Salt

Originally published on Fri August 2, 2013 11:08 am

"Look for a house, barn, paddock, barking dogs and screeching peacocks."

Those were Heidi Feldman's instructions to me to find Down Island Farm in Vineyard Haven on Martha's Vineyard, Mass.

She forgot to mention the ram, free roaming chickens and miniature horse. But I managed to find it anyway.

When I arrived, Feldman showed me her hoop house, where the island's newest star product is growing. The 14-by-3-foot wooden box is covered by a plastic arch and filled with about 3 inches of seawater, with small, filmy patches spotting the surface. It doesn't look like much, but this vessel holds Martha's Vineyard Sea Salt, and those patches are the fleur de sel, the first, finest bloom of salt.

This spring was the salt's debut. Feldman says it was the product of years of brainstorming to find something that everyone needs, but isn't being made locally.

"One day I was sitting and eating a bag of Cape Cod Sea Salt and Vinegar chips," she says. "And it just dawned on me: No one here was making sea salt. And it just kinda went snap, snap, snap: sea salt! OK, how does somebody make sea salt?"

So she set out to find out by researching on the Internet, talking with other boutique salt-makers and, she says, "sending spies to other farm markets."

So far, it has been a success — she's already sold out all her early batches. But Feldman is far from the first person in this area who has looked at the ocean, looked at their salt shaker and had a light bulb go off.

Dennis Kostick, who was a salt specialist for the U.S. Geological Survey for more than 40 years, says "there's actually a great history of the salt industry in New England, and especially Massachusetts."

He says that the New England salt industry grew strong during Revolutionary times, when there was an embargo on imports, and salt was vital to health and food preservation. It continued to boom up to the Civil War.

"But unfortunately," Kostick says, "through competition, a lot of the small companies were absorbed by the middle-sized companies, and the middle-sized companies absorbed by the giants."

But now, small salt-makers are popping up again, in the same spots in Massachusetts where the saltworks once loomed large. In addition to Feldman's company, there's the Wellfleet Sea Salt Co. and Cape Cod Salt Works on the Cape.

Feldman says that what appeals to people about her salt is that it's a piece of the island. In the future, she's planning to blend the salt with other native flavors, like blueberry and sassafras, for even more locavore allure.

She's in the process of building a new evaporation house more than six times the size of the current one to dry more salt with the sun. Once that's going, she hopes to start on the flavored blends. And while she may never reach the bushel volume of the olden days, at least for now, the saltworks are back in business.

Perry is a freelancer in Somerville, Mass.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Himalayan pink, French lavender-scented, Hawaiian black lava: there is seemingly no end to the different forms salt can take. And now, a region of the U.S. that was once famous for its salt industry is bringing its own brand back to the table. Katherine Perry has this story from Massachusetts, where the lost craft of making sea salt is being revived.

KATHERINE PERRY, BYLINE: Look for house, barn, paddock, barking dogs, screeching peacocks. Those were Heidi Feldman's instructions to me to find Down Island Farm in Vineyard Haven, Martha's Vineyard. She forgot to mention the ram, the free roaming chickens, and miniature horse, but I managed to find it anyway.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

HEIDI FELDMAN: This is the hoop house. It doesn't look like much but the fleur de sel is starting on the top right there,

PERRY: The hoop house doesn't look like much: A 14 by three foot wooden box, covered by a plastic arch, like a tunnel, filled with about three inch of sea water, with small filmy patches spotting the surface. But this vessel holds the island's newest star product: Martha's Vineyard Sea Salt, and those patches are the fleur de sel, the first, finest bloom of salt.

This spring was the salt's debut. Heidi says it was the product of years of brainstorming for a business idea: What's something that everyone needs, but isn't being made locally?

FELDMAN: One day I was sitting and eating a bag of Cape Cod Sea Salt and Vinegar chips. And it just dawned on me that nobody here was making sea salt. And it just kind of went sea salt! OK. How does somebody make sea salt?

PERRY: So she set out to find out. Researching on the Internet, talking with other boutique salt makers.

FELDMAN: Sending spies to other farm markets.

PERRY: And it's been a great success. She's already sold out all her early batches. But Heidi is far from the first person in this area who has looked at the ocean, looked at their salt shaker, and had a light bulb go off.

DENNIS KOSTICK: There's actually a great history of the salt industry in New England, and especially Massachusetts.

PERRY: Dennis Kostick was a salt specialist for the U.S. Geological Survey for more than 40 years. He says that the New England salt industry grew strong during Revolutionary times, when there was an embargo on imports and salt was vital to health and food preservation. And it continued to boom up to the Civil War.

KOSTICK: Unfortunately, through competition a lot of the small companies were absorbed by the middle sized companies, and the middle sized companies absorbed by the giants.

PERRY: But now, small salt makers are popping up again, in the same spots in Massachusetts where the salt works once loomed large. Heidi Feldman says that what appeals to people about her salt is that it's a piece of the island, and in the future she's planning to blend the salt with other native flavors for even more locavore allure.

FELDMAN: So, we've got a lot of native blueberry out here. We'd like to do a sweet and savory and some smoked. So, we have - like that's a stand of sassafras right there, so how about sassafras smoked salt? Why not?

PERRY: History is repeating itself on Cape Cod as well, where in the past year or so two new Sea Salt companies have cropped up. If you're looking for Heidi's Martha's Vineyard Sea Salt, don't worry. To meet demand, they're in the process of building a new evaporation house more than six times the size of the current one. Once that's going, they hope to start on the flavored blends. And while they may never reach the bushel volume of the olden days, at least for now, the salt works are back in business. For NPR News, I'm Katherine Perry. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.