Super glue in one hand, red wine in the other and a hole in his mouth, David walks into the kitchen as we discuss the day’s events. Supergluing your own tooth back in isn’t the best approach to dentistry. It’s not the first time David has wooed Alison with such antics, his past escapades include falling into a hot vat of boiling brine, then bursting through the office doors to the weekly business meeting with a burnt naked bottom.
The world’s finest sea salt is, first and foremost, the cherished child of a love story that began when David and Alison Lea-Wilson landed in Wales in 1976 to study at Bangor University.
“The only reason why we came here was that we wanted to be somewhere in the country,” David says. “This was the only university where we could follow our courses together and see each other often. Young love, and all that.”
“Some chefs told us our salt tastes like the cleanest ocean”
They launched a few businesses, beginning with growing oysters and selling fish at the students’ union every Friday to supplement their student grants, but it was when David was attending interviews in London that the couple took the decision to commit to their businesses. David recounts one experience. “They wanted to know why I’d chosen to come to an interview wearing a green suit. In fact, it was the only jacket I had and within ten seconds I knew I’d never work in a bank. My focus was: what could we do on our island where it was what you did not what you wore that mattered?”
The couple explored their options and came up with the idea of an aquarium. They farmed fish and rescued lobsters, mullets and other sunfish brought back by local fishermen who found them stuck in their pots. Their tanks became an attraction and their sea zoo was born. They ran it for twenty-two years attracting just over two million visitors, but as competition grew fiercer they had to brainstorm their next move to make a living. “The key transition from sea zoo to sea salt was the fact we have to pay the Queen for seawater,” says Alison. “At the time it was £6,000 a year but they wanted to increase it. We eventually came up with a lot of ideas and one of them was sea salt.”
With three children to raise, Alison gave her husband six months to realise the project while she was still running the aquarium. David used the back seats of university lecture halls to learn more about crystallisation and chemistry before launching the family business. Production started off simply in the family kitchen, and at first, they endured portacabins ― for eight years (six more than David had promised Alison). Finally, they moved into a new Saltcote. Throughout, the couple have been committed to their business.
“A pan of seawater and an experiment didn’t mean there was a moment when we first made the salt that we thought, Oh right, we have got a fantastic business. Everything is going to be fine,” says David. Now supplying eighteen countries, they have met the very best in the culinary field and received compliments from many, including Ferran Adrià, El Bulli’s chef, considered to be one of the best chefs in the world. Alison recently discovered Buddhist monks in a temple in Japan are using their salt to pickle offerings for their ancestors.
“If other cultures value the salt so highly, we will follow that. At that time there weren’t many campaigns for real ingredients. We could have a go at being salt.” Halen Môn salt has landed a Protected Designation of Origin for the Anglesey sea salt (the first in Wales) as recognition for the importance of the region in the making of this artisan product.
“Everything really started because we knew the sea water was clean because we bred sea horses who are the fussiest animals.” There is no heavy industry for them as the huge tidal range forbids the passage of larger ships. Lots of shellfish are grown in the area and contribute towards filtering the water and keeping it clean. That same water is filtered through sand, charcoal and physical filters.
After boiling it at approximately 80° under a vacuum, the concentrated seawater is taken into the production building and put into shallow tanks. The salt crystallises on the surface, forming inverted pyramid crystals around a tiny speck of salt. The crystals get heavier and fall to the bottom where the company harvests them carefully, once a day, at a specific time, with shovels to produce specifically sized crystals.
“Some chefs told us our salt tastes like the cleanest ocean, some of them even found it sweet. I want my salt to sprinkle. It is only achievable by doing it by hand so we do need the human element. The whole business is about people, the product and the place. We’re trying to bring all three together to make something sustainable. It’s a nice bunch of people and we have reached the stage where we employ the children of people we employed a generation earlier at the sea zoo, so that does suggest sustainability at some level.”
And of course, it’s all about taste and texture. A long, delicate and demanding process ensures the high standards of their products. Seawater has other things in it like magnesium which can make it taste a bit bitter. The salt is rinsed to get the taste profile as well as the visual aspect right and then left to drain for twenty-four hours before going into a low-temperature oven for another day.
It’s been an eventful thirty years making a living by the sea. “But still exciting,” says David. “There are still lots of new ideas and the sea salt is definitely becoming established. We are proud and humbled. People like what we are doing and they identify with it. It’s really lovely to be able to deliver, all over the world, a seasoning which is basically made of the landscape of Wales.”