I’ve never paid too much attention to salt. As long as it’s accompanied with a slice of lime and a shot of tequila I’m a happy lady. However, during a recent trip to Anglesey, I was intrigued by lots of little blue and white Halen Môn sea salt jars which featured in every restaurant we visited.
I discovered that Halen Môn, also known as Anglesey Sea Salt, was set up in 1997 by David and Alison Lea-Wilson to resurrect Anglesey’s 18th century craft of sea salt making. The couple already owned The Anglesey Sea Zoo but the seasonality of the business caused serious cash-flow problems, so David and Alison hit on the idea of making sea salt. They took a saucepan of seawater from the Menai Strait to their home to boil on their Aga. Salt crystals began to form and Halen Môn was born.
Today, the pure, white sea salt is enjoyed around the world by chefs (including Heston Blumenthal and Tom Aikens), food lovers and was even served at Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding.
If that’s not enough recognition, in 2014 the salt was given Protected Designation of Origin status which puts it up there with the likes of Champagne and Parma Ham. This means that Halen Môn must be made and packed on the island, using only seawater sourced from the Menai.
Halen Môn remains a small family run business with just over twenty employees. It has recently expanded by opening Tŷ Halen, a Saltcote and Visitor Centre. Situated on the banks of the Menai, visitors can go on a behind the scenes tour of the salt factory to see how Halen Môn is produced.
We visited during a recent trip to the island to learn more about what makes Anglesey Sea Salt so special. We were led by our guide, Eluned, on a 50 minute tour of the factory as well as a salt tasting session (unfortunately tequila wasn’t included!)
Eluned explained that sea water is taken from the Menai, of which approximately 3% is salt. It is then passed through a series of filters, to remove any seaweed or sand particles, and allowed to flow into crystallisation tanks where it is boiled at 80 degrees.
We were told how a duty has to be paid to the Queen for the seawater, since the Crown owns the coastline and charges rent for the pipeline into the factory.
Aside from the Menai’s water being exceptionally clean, the company don’t do anything to the salt except heat and rinse the crystals, which gives the great taste and sparkling appearance. Totally natural, nothing else is added.
Each morning the harvesters scoop the crystals up by hand and rinse them in brine to reach the desired taste, texture and sparkle. The crystals are then dried in ovens and packed into the little blue and white ceramic jars that we saw all over Anglesey.
Every jar is marked with the harvest date and the salt maker's initials so you know that your sea salt was packed by a real person and "not some robotic arm in a factory." Some of the salt is blended with different seasonings to give different tastes including vanilla, chilli, garlic, celery and charcoal.
During the tour we learnt that in 1807, pioneering chemist Sir Humphry Davy separated salt into sodium and chlorine as separate elements. Sodium can burst into flames when exposed with water and chlorine is a lethal gas. But, put the two together and they make one of the nicest tastes we know today. Salt has since become the world’s most taxed commodity and in Switzerland, the government is the only body allowed to directly import salt.
After our tour we sat down for a taste test whereby we were each given a sheet of paper with different varieties of salt on to taste. Starting with basic table salt, then standard rock salt before tasting various flavours of Halen Môn.
For someone who previously knew nothing about salt, the difference between the table salt and the Anglesey sea salt was immediately evident. To taste sea salt in its natural form and compare it to the refined salt that we use at home (and also put down on the path when it snows) really illustrated that salt tastes best at its rawest.
Needless to say we vowed to banish the table salt from our kitchen and left with bags full of salty goodies from the factory’s shop, including delicious salted caramel sauce and bars of sea salt chocolate.
For me, Anglesey Sea Salt is enjoyed best with chocolate. The saltiness intensifies the cocoa and caramel flavours. Green & Blacks use Halen Môn as do Rococo Chocolates. President Obama is also a fan and has the salt sprinkled on his favourite caramel milk chocolates made by Fran’s Chocolates in Seattle. If it's good enough for the President, it's good enough for me!