“Extracting salt from water is the simplest alchemy, and yet it feels like magic”
I love salt. It makes everything more delicious. It’s like booze at a party: it’s essential. Salt helps tomatoes release their inhibitions, brings out the best in pasta, and creates conversation in a stew.
For several years I’ve been philosophically obsessed with salt too. Salt is elusive yet fundamental: it’s a shape-shifting, transformative mineral that dissolves and precipitates; humans can’t live without it (although if we eat too much, it’s not good for us either).
I moved to the seaside last year, and it feels like my life has become a lot saltier since then: I swim in the sea as often as I can, my hair has taken on that ruffled, untamed salt water look, and I’ve even started making my own salt, too.
When I heard about chef Stephen Harris making salt at his award-winning restaurant, The Sportsman, in Whitstable, just 20 miles along the coast from me, I was instantly intrigued. What would my local sea taste like? I wondered. Does Margate taste different to Whitstable? Chefs talk about terroir, when food expresses a sense of a place or distinctive characteristics from the climate or geography where it’s produced. But what about salt? Can that express itself, too?
The next day, I found myself knees-deep in the waves, scooping up litres of seawater in an oversized Tupperware, as bemused dog-walkers looked on. I sloshed my way back to the car, and very carefully drove home. It takes a couple of hours to evaporate a large saucepan of seawater on the hob, so I flung open the kitchen windows, turned up the heat, and waited for the crystals to appear.
Extracting salt from water is the simplest alchemy, and yet it feels like magic. When you heat seawater, salt emerges like a secret at the bottom of the pan. The same way humans excrete salty sweat or cry salty tears when we are pushed to our limits, salt is an expression of seawater condensed into solid form.
It’s pretty ugly, though. My salt isn’t Maldon’s finest; it’s grainy, coarse, and a bit grey. But it’s mine. And isn’t all self-expression a little messy and imperfect in the end?
It’s clearly a waste of time too: it’s quicker (and cheaper) to buy industrially produced salt. But that’s what I love most: wars have been fought over the right to produce salt, and making my own feels like a tiny act of rebellion against mass produced food, like I’m sharing a secret with the sea.
When I give a little pot of my salt to friends, sprinkle it on roast potatoes, or add a pinch when I’m cooking, I feel like I’m sharing a piece of myself too. And now, when I jump into the sea, I am a grain of salt: Coming back to where I belong and dissolving into the water.
How to make salt (produces 30-40g salt per litre)
Fancy giving salt making a go? Read on for the full instructions.
1. Find a clean beach, away from wastewater stations or industrial sites. Check local water quality on Surfers Against Sewage.
2. Go at high tide on a calm day, and wade in a little way so you’re not scooping sand up with the water. Make sure you’re safe and take someone with you to help.
3. Scoop water from the top of the waves where it’s freshest into large Tupperware or strong food bags.
4. Once you’re back home and dry, tip the seawater into a clear container, cover it, and leave in a cool room overnight so the sediment settles.
5. The next day, line a sieve with a clean J-cloth and place over a large, heavy-based saucepan. A wider pan will help the water evaporate quicker. Gently tip the water through the sieve, without pouring the sediment in.
6. Open the windows or put the extractor fan on and boil the water rapidly until most of it has evaporated and you’re left with a salty sludge at the bottom. It takes about 2 hours to evaporate 2 litres of water, but it depends on the size of your saucepan and how fast you boil it.
7. Lower the heat and keep evaporating, skimming salt crystals off the surface as they form. Keep an eye on it so it doesn’t catch
8. Line a sieve with a clean J-cloth and tip the remaining salt in. Wring the salt dry in the J-cloth, and then spread the salt thinly on a wooden chopping board and leave to dry completely in a warm spot.
9. Store in an airtight container and use within 6 months.
For one day only on Thursday 20 September, Gemma Cairney has taken over stylist.co.uk and transformed it into her very own Express Yourself platform – a digital initiative which aims to inspire us, challenge us and encourage us to explore our creative sides.
For similarly inspiring content, check out Stylist’s September Shake Up initiative here.
Images: Courtesy of author