Harvesting Sea Salt — The Canadian Way
Vancouver Island Artisan Sea Salt
In waters off the coast of British Columbia, a small number of culinary-minded farmers are doing what people dwelling near the sea have done for thousands of years—harvesting sea salt.
“We’re surrounded by salt,” said Jeff Abel, co-founder of Saltwest Naturals, who first began collecting seawater in buckets from his boat in 2011. Today, he and his wife Jessica produce thousands of pounds of sea salt each year at their hand-built salt harvestry in Otter Point, BC on Vancouver Island.
Sea salt harvesting is a relatively new occupation in Canada. Although oceans border the country on three sides, commercial sea salt production in Canada began only within the last decade. Nationwide, a mere handful of sea salt producers harvest salt from Canada’s coastal waters. Four of them are on islands off the coast of British Columbia.
Harvesting Sea Salt: Finding the Site
“The Cascade region—Oregon to Alaska…that stretch of coastline—has the lowest ocean salinity anywhere in the world,” said Jeff, who faced a variety of challenges while developing the Saltwest harvestry.
He and Jessica spent a lot of time searching for the best site to harvest their sea salt. Just as fine wines acquire the terroir of the place their grapes are cultivated, sea salt reflects the unique mineral constituency of its native waters.
Surveying inlets and bays along the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the west coast of Vancouver Island near Sooke, the Abels eventually found the perfect site: a small beach with cold, clear waters, good tidal exchange, a fast-moving current, and a pleasingly palatable salt minerality.
To collect the seawater, they first must watch for favourable wind, weather and tidal conditions. Then, using a hose extended into the water and a flat deck truck with a 500-gallon tank, they pump up the seawater and take it back to the harvestry for processing.
How to Crystallize Sea SaltFrom BC’s smallest artisan sea salt makers to larger producers like Saltwest, the process of making salt crystals follows certain basic patterns. In most parts of the world, sea salt is evaporated outdoors in large ponds. Lacking a hot, sunny climate, BC salt producers mainly use steam evaporation to harvest sea salt.
It starts with pumping up tankfuls or collecting individual buckets of seawater. From there, the harvesters filter out the impurities, and evaporate the water in enamel pans over a stovetop or in dedicated kettles to concentrate the salt content to a desired salinity.
The seawater evaporates down. More water is added and the brine simmers down further until the water is so concentrated with salt, it can’t hold any more. At this point (about 25 to 30% concentration), the salt begins to crystallize.
Capturing the Fleur de Sel — Flower of SaltSalt crystals form on the surface of the brine like delicate icy blossoms. This is the prized fleur de sel, the “flower of salt,” a moist, fine, mineral-rich salt with distinctive irregular crystals and a crunchy texture. Chefs use fleur de sel as a finishing salt, a garnish that adds special flavour to vegetables, eggs, fish, and meat, as well as to sweets like chocolate and caramel.
At Saltwest, the Abels produce fleur de sel in large double-walled kettles heated by a steam-generating boiler. “You need the water to be as hot as it can get without boiling,” said Jeff. “The salt will form like sheets of ice on the top, and as it gets heavy, it breaks and sinks down, and another sheet will take its place. It’s very critical temperature-wise. Once water reaches a rolling boil, all of the salt will be fine-grain and you lose the flake that constitutes the fleur de sel.”
When the brine has evaporated to the point where only salt crystals remain, the salt is drained, dried, sorted and packaged. Harvesters can infuse flavours, if desired, during the brining process by adding herbs, vinegars, or alcohol, or during the drying phase by blending in dried herbs or imparting smoke aromas in a smoker.
A tour of Saltwest Naturals Sea Salt Harvestry in Otter Point BC, where Jeff and Jessica Abel produce fleur de sel and unique-in-Canada sun-dried sea salt.
Canadian Sun-Dried Sea Salt
While steam evaporation yields a flaky Canadian sea salt, the process of salt harvesting in British Columbia tends to be more energy intensive than in the temperate climates where most sea salt is harvested. There, salt harvesters use large open solar evaporation ponds and the power of the sun to extract the salt crystals.
For BC salt harvesters, the wet and windy Pacific Northwest climate—especially from October to April—is not conducive to this kind of solar process. At present, Saltwest Naturals produces the only commercial sun-dried sea salt in Western Canada.
“We wanted to have a completely sun-dried salt,” said Jeff Abel. “Living in the Pacific Northwest we have our challenges with that in regard to the weather.” Luckily, the maritime coastal summers on Vancouver Island are mainly hot and dry.
Taking advantage of the favourable summer months, Saltwest built two solar greenhouses filled with shallow trays to evaporate the seawater. It takes about a week, at an average summer temperature of 55ºC (131ºF), to finish the salt. With lower temperatures in the spring and fall (and processing times of 14 to 30 days), Saltwest is able to harvest sun-dried salt from March through October.
Salt produced through solar evaporation has larger crystals and retains more beneficial trace minerals than steam-evaporated sea salt. “When you’re drying salt at that very low temperature, it has pretty much all of its minerals intact,” said Jeff. “It also produces a very coarse salt crystal as opposed to a flake or a fine grain.”
With its concentrated burst of saltiness and unique square-shaped crystals, solar sea salt stands out as a finishing accent for foods of all kinds.
Sea salt is one of the world’s most ancient foods and most basic minerals. Essential for human life, important for food preservation, salt is perhaps the most common and elemental seasoning we know. No wonder BC chefs and farmers are discovering the unique regional minerality of sea salt from the waters around Vancouver Island.
British Columbia Sea Salt Producers
The Vancouver Island area is home to four artisan sea salt harvesters:
SaltWest Naturals – Jeff & Jessica Abel
Otter Point, BC
Fleur de sel, sun-dried sea salt and flavour-infused sea salt from the Strait of Juan de Fuca off the west coast of Vancouver Island.
Black Creek, BC
Flaked sea salt and specialty sea salt blends. Hand-harvested from selected Comox Valley beaches on the Strait of Georgia on eastern Vancouver Island.
Vancouver Island Salt Co. – Andrew Shepherd
Cobble Hill, BC
Fleur del sel, flavour-infused, and smoked sea salt from Cherry Point on the eastern shore of Vancouver Island.
Salt Spring Island Sea Salt – Philippe Marill & Carolyn Kvajic
Salt Spring Island, BC
Natural, flavour-infused and smoked fleur de sel that traces the roots of French sea salt harvesting. From waters around Salt Spring Island.
Sea salt recipe:
Rosemary Sea Salt Crackers