February 1

Brine and Dandy: Salt Ladies’ flakes making waves with gourmets

Two women from Boston’s North Shore produce finishing salt that is prized by professional and amateur chefs alike.

By Sean Horgan
Gloucester Daily Times

GLOUCESTER, Mass. — The location of the harvest is a secret because ... well, because the Salt Ladies want to keep it that way. And it does not do to cross the Salt Ladies.

click image to enlarge

Alison Darnell, left, and Heather Ahearn, founders of Atlantic Saltworks, gather five-gallon buckets of salt water at a secret place on the coast of Cape Ann, Mass., on Monday. Their salt is winning attention from foodies.

Photos by Desi Smith/Gloucester Daily Times

click image to enlarge

Heather Ahearn holds some sea salt in her hand, above the waters at the shore of Cape Ann, Mass. She and Alison Darnell founded their salt business in August and are already working to expand their product line.

The unseasonably balmy 40-degree temperatures of Martin Luther King Jr. Day have drawn Alison Darnell and Heather Ahearn – along with their 28 large plastic buckets – to this small public beach that, for reasons of competitive advantage, shall remain nameless.

Even on holidays, the salt show must go on.

Waterproofed from their feet up and double-gloved, the two women spend the next hour lugging the empty buckets into the sea and returning to terra firma with 5 gallons of pristine Cape Ann seawater in each – the very nectar that begins the process to produce mounds of pure sea salt for discerning gourmets and seat-of-the-pants cooks alike.

Ahearn and Darnell are founders, senior executives, cooks and chief seawater Sherpas for Atlantic Saltworks, a fledgling North Shore-based company that produces gourmet sea salt for sale on the company’s website and, up to this point, at a limited number of retail locations, such as The Cave in Gloucester.

They started the company in August. Basically, at least for now, it is run out of their respective homes – Salem for Ahearn and Wakefield for Darnell.

BOILING IT DOWN

When it’s time to cook the salt from the seawater, operations shift to the shared commercial kitchen the company leases in Amesbury, where the seawater is boiled to produce the briny flake finishing sea salt that is the rage in the cooking world. The yield is about 3 ounces per gallon of water.

“It just tastes better,” Darnell said. “We don’t use anti-caking agents like a big company might use, and we don’t take anything from the salt, and we don’t add anything to it.”

Once collected, the seawater is allowed to settle. Then it is filtered to remove organic impurities and boiled to produce the salt.

The whole enterprise started with the boiling of 1 gallon of seawater out of Salem Harbor on Ahearn’s kitchen stove, just to see if they could do it.

“We actually made salt, and we were hooked,” Darnell said. “But it’s one thing to boil down a gallon of water on your stove to produce salt and another to consistently produce the finest flake.”

The women, both 39, hold MBAs from Babson College and day jobs in traditional businesses. But that 1 gallon of water turned their hearts to salt.

The idea in hand, they embarked on their research.

TASTY RESEARCH

They investigated the history of salt and identified those companies – such as Maldon Salt Co., in Essex, England – regarded as the producers of the finest flake and finishing salt. They checked with local and state regulators about the propriety of freely harvesting seawater from public areas and with health agencies for the applicable standards.

Then they hit the road, traveling the North Shore coastline from Newburyport to Salem, sampling and testing the seawater, searching for the right salinity and the highest purity. That search ultimately led them to Cape Ann, where they found what they considered the very best water for what they believe is the among the best sea salts anyone is making.

“We narrowed it down to a couple places we liked because of the taste of the salt and because they just felt like it was the right places to be,” Ahearn said.

They even performed a blind taste-test of salts made from seawater from varying spots.

“It was very slight, but you could tell the difference ,and we knew that one was slightly better than the other,” Darnell said. “It’s amazing what we’ve learned in a short time. Salt is all we talk about. My husband is so bored with it.”

(Continued on page 2)

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