Halen Môn

Halen Môn, Anglesey

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!

Halen Môn

The Marram Grass Cafe, Anglesey

Driving through the winding countryside roads on the Isle of Anglesey, you'd be forgiven for sailing straight past one of the best eateries in the UK.

The location of The Marram Grass cafe is unusual to say the least, hidden away on a caravan park in rural Newborough. From the outside you wouldn’t imagine that this little cafe could be so popular. 

So popular in fact, people are regularly turned away because the cafe is full. We visited last weekend and watched in disbelief at how many people arrived desperate for a table. One poor chap even tried his luck three times and was told on each occasion that they were fully booked all weekend. 

Marram Grass is owned by Liverpool brothers Liam and Ellis Barrie, whose parents bought the White Lodge Caravan Park on which the cafe is situated. Liam is front of house while Ellis is chef. It’s set in an old potting shed with a corrugated iron roof. Chickens and hens wander freely outside, keeping watch over the cafe’s carpark. 

When the brothers first took over the cafe in 2011, it was a greasy spoon serving all-day breakfasts with just four tables. In a previous life if was even a rabbit breeding shed. The cafe has since developed and has become something of a gourmet caravan park cafe with over 40 covers. The brothers aim was simply to create a relaxed place where the menu would be based on quality, provenance and seasonality. They’ve certainly achieved this, and have earned themselves a place in the prestigious Good Food Guide.

The interior is charming and quirky. There is a lovely little wood-burning stove in the corner, hanging baskets and mismatched glass bottles dotted around on window-ledges and a humorous sign above the bar, “no bloody swearing.”

Yet the real star of the show is undoubtedly the food, which is absolutely beautiful. The menu is confident and changes to reflect the season. The brothers source the ingredients from as many local producers as possible, including mussels from the Menai Strait and Anglesey Sea Salt from the nearby Halen Môn. It makes the most of Anglesey’s fantastic local produce and the great relationship that the Marram Grass has with local farmers and suppliers.

Soup of the day with homemade bread (£4.75)

Menai mussels with white wine, shallots and leek (£13.50)

Anglesey Goats cheese roasted fennel with cumin, fennel bahji, picked salsify and passion fruit (£7.95)

Maris piper potato terrine with stuffed leek, broccoli variations and Hafod crisps (£15.95)

Traditional fish and chips served with mushy garden peas and tartar sauce (Half £9.50/Full £14.50 - this was only half!)

The desserts were our favourite and went down an absolute treat. The panna cota was one of the nicest desserts I’ve ever had. 

Anglesey Apple panna cota with ice cream (£7.50)

Bitter orange, cardamon and fennel creme brûlée (£6.50)

Rhubarb custard crumble (£6.50)

The cafe was full to the brim while we were there and the phone rang off the hook; people desperate to secure a reservation following a recent wave of publicity from Julia Bradbury’s program, ‘Best Walks With A View’, which featured the cafe as well as a recent article in the Guardian.

The atmosphere inside was cheerful and buzzing, despite the changeable Welsh weather outside, everyone seemed happy to be in the safety and comfort of the little Marram Grass shed. 

Our waiter, Ally, was a real character, very friendly and passionate about the food he was serving. 

After our meal, we got chatting to the brothers aunty and uncle outside who were visiting for the day from Liverpool. Even they had difficulty booking in. The Barrie brothers might be charming chaps but they also know good business!

I love how passionate and enthusiastic Liam and Ellis are. Their personality has trickled through into every detail; the menu, the decor and the service. Despite their success they seem grounded and remain committed to the caravan park, undeterred by a recent flooding which caused them to close the cafe for a period to refurbish. They have recently set up Gardd Rhosyr, a 14 acre agricultural space which is going to be used as a kitchen garden and recreational space where they will grown their own produce and rear their own animals. 

Ellis told me that he would love to open up another eatery close-by. Judging by the people who we saw turned away in their droves I’m sure they wouldn’t have any difficulty filling up a second place. I know I’d be first in the queue!

If you do plan to visit, it goes without saying that you should book in advance. I’d also coincide the visit with a walk on the nearby Newborough Beach to Llanddwyn Island, which is absolutely stunning. 

Parking at the cafe is limited so make sure you arrive in plenty of time and be prepared to park on the road. Unless you’re in a caravan, in which case, pitch up and make yourself at home. 

The Marram Grass

White Lodge, Newborough, Anglesey, LL61 6RS

Breakfast (09:30 - 11:00) : Saturday & Sunday

Lunch (12:00 - 14:30) &  Evening (18:00 - 21:00): Thursday - Sunday