11/24/2014 02:40 EST | Updated 01/24/2015 05:59 EST

Cold water makes natural Canadian sea salt unique: very white and clean

LONDON, Ont. - Sea salt has been harvested around the world for centuries, but even though Canada has oceans on three sides, commercial sea salt production began here just five years ago.

"We don't have the climate (extended hot sunny weather) to produce a lot of it," says Peter Burt, owner of the Newfoundland Salt Co. in St. John's. "Now we're at a point where technology can overcome the challenges of the weather."

Andrew Shepherd of Cobble Hill, B.C., was the first producer here and his Vancouver Island Salt Co. is the biggest. His two "sauniers" — sea salt harvesters — pump about 28,000 litres of seawater a week, always at high tide when the water is cleanest.

After filtering, it goes into three large steam kettles. They boil it down by three-quarters, fill the kettles and repeat the process over and over for three or four days until "the water can't hold the salt anymore — it's too highly concentrated.

"At that stage, we allow the fleur de sel — the flower of the salt — to form on top of the water and skim that out. Then we boil the rest of the water off and the bottom of the pots are full of salt."

After being drained and air-dried for four or five days, it can be flavoured or packaged as is. Shepherd produces 365 to 450 kilograms of salt a week.

Initially he used wood to heat his kettles but after two years switched to bio-diesel made from recycled cooking oil.

"We actually have an environmental rating of beyond carbon neutral."

He calls fleur de sel "the most prized sea salt in the world" because of its smooth taste, and the most expensive. "Ours has a bit of a crunch and a little flake because of the colder climate, but that's really specific to our fleur de sel."

Fleur de sel is the only kind of sea salt Burt makes, but in much smaller quantities.

He started in 2012 and has been selling salt since June. He first hauled water out of the ocean with a bucket, but eventually connected with Memorial University, which pumps huge amounts of water from Logy Bay, north of St. John's, for oceanographic research. Burt takes only 300 litres at a time, which yields about six kilograms of high-quality salt.

He also uses a rapid boil to reduce the 300 litres to 16 litres over two days, then puts it on a very low heat for 24 to 48 hours. "That's when I produce salt."

Ward George of New Harbour, on Newfoundland's Trinity Bay, believes his Pure Sea Salt Co. is the only Canadian firm using solar power to produce sea salt. He lives so close to the bay that he pumps water through a hose directly to a greenhouse and into a large container lined with food-grade rubber to a depth of no more than 7.6 centimetres. The sun evaporates it by about 50 per cent, then he moves it to a smaller holder to reduce further and finally to tables to dry. It is filtered between each step.

He gets about 113 to 136 kilograms of salt from each batch and has been selling it for two years.

The upside, says George, is that his salt retains more beneficial trace minerals than boiled sea salt. The downside is that it takes 30 to 60 days to process one batch and it is seasonal, viable only from mid-April to mid-September. He is working on ideas to make his operation year-round.

All three men are passionate about sea salt, partly because former professional chef Shepherd, working chef Burt and self-defined "foodie" George love to cook with it and none likes the additives in table salt.

Shepherd calls sea salt a "beautiful natural product."

Burt, who has a "massive collection" of salts from around the world, says "there are subtle flavour differences everywhere (because) the water is different everywhere."

Canadian salt is also unique because the cold water makes it "very white and very clean," he says.

"I want a clean, crisp, natural, pure taste," says George. "There are no additives in this, no after-taste, no anti-caking agents."

Besides regular sea salt, Shepherd and George make flavour-infused salts. Shepherd's include Spanish paprika and Danish blue cheese. George makes a savoury-infused salt for "come-from-aways" (tourists) and even did a batch infused with Merlot.

All three also make smoked salt. Shepherd currently uses a blend of alder, maple and apple. George uses hickory and Burt has settled on juniper.

While all three have websites, none has an online store, but all are planning one.

Burt and George so far sell their products only in Newfoundland, although Burt also has chef clients in Toronto and Montreal.

Shepherd is well established in retail outlets in Nova Scotia and from Ontario west and is now targeting Asian markets. He recently won $100,000 from Telus in The Challenge, a contest for Canadian small businesses, to help him develop a global marketing strategy.


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