Hugh Collins headed to Wales to learn about the production of the renowned sea salt – Halen Mon
“Season to taste, and serve” is a line that appears as a footnote in almost all recipes. Yet, despite having slavishly followed each preceding line, and having sourced the finest ingredients we can afford, we rarely give that final instruction any attention at all. A quick twist of the tired salt and pepper mills perhaps or maybe, forgetfully, nothing at all. After all, it is only salt and pepper, what difference can it make?
It turns out quite a lot, and to find out more I headed north, past the crumpled edges of Snowdonia glowing beneath their coat of gorse flowers and across the Menai straits, to Anglesey. Once known as the ‘bread basket of Wales’, the island of Anglesey has a long association of food production and its seafood, mussels and oysters from the Menai’s clean waters, remain some of the finest in the UK.
However, the product that has recently put Anglesey on Britain’s gastronomic map is its sea salt. Halen Môn (literally ‘Anglesey sea salt’ in Welsh), is an artisan product used by some of the world’s top chefs including Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adria.
This esteemed product, however, came from humble beginnings as founders Alison and David Lea-Wilson sought a way to make a year-round income as their nearby Sea Zoo (one of Britain’s first aquariums) proved only a seasonal attraction. Of their countless ideas, one was to harvest sea salt from the Menai’s waters, so early one morning they filled a saucepan with the clear water, left it on the AGA, and Halen Môn was born.
Things have progressed since then – although I’m told the saucepan is still in use – and this year the company opened a new Saltcote centre, a beautiful building clad in Welsh larch that seems as much a part of the landscape as the salt it produces. Inviting visitors to learn more about the product and the process the Saltcote hosts visitor tours and also the company’s offices and a shop.
After an introductory video explaining the company’s history, the tour takes you to a glass-windowed corridor overlooking the harvesting room. Here brine that has already been filtered through sand and carbon and boiled in a vacuum is slowly heated until the salt crystallises and begins to gather at the surface.
When these flakes grow so large that they sink, they are hand harvested by a shovel or scoop, an artisan skill that is trickier than it sounds. While watching the process you learn interesting titbits about salt’s history such as it having been buried alongside Pharaohs in the Egyptian pyramids and playing a key role in both Gandhi’s and the French revolutions.
The tour concludes with a tasting session with small piles of various salts laid out in front of you. The difference between Halen Môn and the others is staggering and immediately obvious, the large flakes glistening and sparkling in comparison the dull, matte European sea salt.
However, the proof as they say is in the eating, and after the bitter, acrid taste of standard table salt, and the unpalatable crunchy bite of rock salt, comes your first taste of Anglesey’s finest. The flakes, each with a satisfying snap, dissolve slowly on the tongue, purer and somehow ‘saltier’ than any of the others. They are a revelation.
After a sip of water (unsurprisingly the tasting is thirsty work!), there are also a couple of Halen Môn’s flavoured salts to try, including a smoked salt that shot to fame with President Obama revealing it topped his favourite chocolates, and an extraordinary vanilla salt, a marriage of sweet and savoury that would be brilliant with Anglesey’s seafood or perhaps in a Welsh cake too.
The tour is a fascinating, behind-the-scenes look at a unique product, and an experience that leaves anything but a bitter taste in the mouth.
Halen Môn: www.halenmon.com