Finish this addictive, easy-to-make toffee with Maine sea salt. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

In his exhaustively researched book, “Salt: A World History,” Mark Kurlansky observes that most modern eaters take this mineral for granted.

“Salt is so common, so easy to obtain, and so inexpensive that we have forgotten that from the beginning of civilization until about 100 years ago, salt was one of the most sought-after commodities in human history,” he wrote.

Unless you lived near the sea, until very recently, surface salt has always been rare. And before 20th century–salt mining technology was developed, extracting subterranean stores of salt was very difficult. Ancient Roman soldiers were paid in salt. Sixth century Moorish merchants traded salt for gold, ounce for ounce, in sub-Saharan Africa. Marco Polo came back from China circa 1295 with stories of salt coins imprinted with the Kublai Khan’s seal.

But given the price of table salt today (just 78 cents per pound in the United States), many Americans over consume it. Current dietary guidelines recommend healthy adults consume no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day. If I am only allowed a scant teaspoon per day, why would I want to it to be run-of-the-mill salt shipped in from away?

China is the world’s leading salt producer, but luckily for us here in Maine we have an increasingly rich local supply of the good stuff. There are three saltern operations based in Maine that produce food-grade salt using nothing but sea water and solar (and a bit of human) energy. Maine-based spice companies blend Maine sea salt with everything from allspice to sea vegetables (a newish term to take the stigma away from seaweed). And grocery stores and specialty retailers are making Maine sea salt in various forms more readily available to shoppers.

Products made with Maine sea salt. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Mark Bitterman is a selmelier (a newish word that gives a salt expert the same cache a sommelier holds in the wine world) based in the other Portland. In his book, “Salted,”  Bitterman argues that a cook requires three types of salt: a coarse fleur de sel (more white because it’s taken from the top of the evaporating pools) for finishing; a flaky salt for adding a crunchy contrast to fresh vegetables; and a sel gris (more gray and with a higher water content because it’s taken from the bottom of the salt pools) for everything else. Maine sea salt companies offer all three types.

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A person who produces salt is called a salter. Salter Stephen Cook founded Maine Sea Salt Company 25 years ago. He started his operation with drying tables constructed from plywood and two-by-fours when no other culinary sea salt was being produced in Maine. Cook’s first product was a one-ounce portion for cooking lobsters that came in a handmade envelope with directions on the back. The Marshfield operation now evaporates sea water in 10 15- by 200-foot green houses. The company, through direct-to-consumer and wholesale channels, sells out each season. Products range from 3-ounce fine sea saltshakers for $10 to 1-pound bags of coarse sea salt for $18.

Maine Salt Farm, based in Cape Elizabeth, has been producing salt since 2015. The company was founded by two couples – Chris and Eliza Rauscher and Chris and Billie Cary – whose goal is a sustainably minded, blue economy enterprise. The process these artisan producers employ to make their finishing salt involves hand-turning the crystallized salt and grading it for grain size and consistency. They add no anti-caking agents or iodine. You can buy a pound for $24, a 3-ounce jar for $12 or a .5-ounce travel snuff box for $8 at specialty shops along the Maine coast, from Port Clyde to Cape Neddick.

The newest entrant into the salt making market in Maine is the woman-run company based in York called Slack Tide Sea Salt Company. Lauren Mendoza, Cathy Martin and Sarah Caldwell seasonally harvest salt water in small batches by boat and rely on a solar-powered brine-making process to offset their use of diesel fuel. The seawater sits in tubs in greenhouses for three weeks to reach 80% evaporation, at which point it is ready to be flaked into salt, the team carefully controlling for both the temperature and salinity to get the large-flake salt they’re rapidly earning a reputation for.

A signal that the market for any local raw ingredient is blooming is that other products are built upon them. Take kelp, for example: Companies are using this seaweed farmed in the Gulf of Maine to make meat-free burgers, kimchi condiments and infused vodka. We’re beginning to see a similar trajectory with Maine sea salt.

Brunswick-based spice company Skordo and Freeport-based seafood expert and chef Barton Seaver recently launched a line of Maine sea salt, spice and herb mixtures. These Wine Pairing Salts have either a 1:2 or 1:3 ratio of herbs to salt. The 1.5 ounce jars ($8 each) contain no actual wine. Rather, Seaver matched the herbs in play with typical notes in six types of wine: pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot noir, merlot and cabernet sauvignon. The idea is that a cook would use these blends in dishes they plan to serve with those wines. The salts are meant for cooking because some of the spices need the application of heat to really “bloom” (their flavor comes forward), explained Katy Kennedy Rivera, Seaver’s business partner.

Christine Burns Rudalevige sprinkles sauvignon blanc spiced salt, made through a partnership between fish expert/chef Barton Seaver and the Skordo spice company, over a trussed chicken she plans to roast. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

As I am partial to drinking dry white wine with my Thanksgiving turkey, I liberally rubbed the sauvignon blanc mix containing Maine sea salt, fenugreek, amchoor, makrut lime leaves, dill weed, onion powder and garlic powder inside and out of my holiday bird. You might rub the pinot noir mix with Maine sea salt, fennel, mint, fenugreek, onion powder, rosebuds, star anise, porcini, cinnamon and mace on a piece of salmon before slowly roasting it.

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As the season of giving rolls around again, consider the gift of Maine sea salt. In many cultures, it’s long been given as a housewarming gift as a symbol of flavor, preservation, healing and protection. I think we all could use all those things.

Maine Sea Salted Chocolate Cracker Toffee Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Cracker Toffee with Pepitas, Dried Cherries and Maine Sea Salt

Because cracker toffee is a breeze to make, some version of it turns up at most holiday gatherings in my family. It’s always a hit. This rendition is festively red and green and features Maine sea salt on top for balance. I use dark chocolate but using equal parts dark and white chocolate in a sort of a swirl pattern is very festive.

Makes 24 servings

40 plain, square crackers
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 cup packed light brown sugar
2 cups chopped dark chocolate
2/3 cup chopped dried cherries
1/2 cup toasted pepitas
Maine sea salt

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

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Line a baking sheet with parchment paper leaving a bit of overhang. Line the sheet with crackers so they are flush, but don’t overlap at all.

Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add brown sugar and stir vigorously to combine. Bring the mixture to a boil and continue boiling until the mixture is a deep caramel color, about 3 minutes. Carefully pour the toffee over the crackers and use a metal spatula to spread it to cover the crackers evenly.

Slide the toffee crackers into the oven and bake for 5 minutes. Remove the tray from the oven and sprinkle chocolate over the toffee crackers.

After a few minutes, the chocolate will melt. Use a metal spatula to spread the chocolate over the toffee crackers. Sprinkle with the cherries, pepitas and Maine sea salt.

Let the toffee crackers cool for at least an hour. Cut or break the sheet into 24 pieces. Store in an airtight container for up to a week.

Local foods advocate Christine Burns Rudalevige is the editor of Edible Maine magazine and the author of “Green Plate Special,” both a column about eating sustainably in the Portland Press Herald and the name of her 2017 cookbook. She can be contacted at: [email protected]


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