salt

How One Family Started a Salt Empire on a Tiny Welsh Island

On the remote coast of Anglesey, Halen Môn sea salt factory produces fine fleur de sel for use in Walker's crisps and export to over 20 countries around the world.

by Angela Hui
13 July 2017, 9:20am

By 10 AM, the salt harvesters working at Halen Môn have finished their shifts and are hanging up their shovels and rubber boots for the day.

"You're a bit late, love," one of them calls out to me. "You've missed all the action."

Located on the coast of Anglesey, a small island off the northwest tip of Wales, Halen Môn is a family-run salt factory. The clear, unpolluted waters that surround it are filtered by mussels and high sandbanks, making it the ideal place to harvest salt from the sea. In just one day, the factory uses 10,000 litres of seawater to produce 200 kilos of glistening white salt flakes. Not bad for a team of just 21 full-time staff—some of whom start work before most of us are out of bed.

The shores of Anglesey, an island off the northwest coast of Wales. All photos by Tom Ballinger.

Getting to the small factory is the result of a five-hour drive on winding country lanes through hills dotted with grazing sheep. In the distance, the jagged peaks of Snowdonia appear through the clouds. When I finally arrive, Halen Môn founders Alison and David Lea-Wilson, along with their two office dogs, are there to greet me with a welcome cup of tea.

The Lea-Wilsons came up with the idea of producing salt commercially after experimenting with boiling seawater in their kitchen. Realising a business opportunity, David took a leave of absence from the Sea Zoo, a public aquarium a short walk from the factory previously owned by the family, to study chemistry at Bangor University.

"I was the sad middle-aged man in the back learning about crystallisation and not passing exams," he laughs. "I spent the summer playing around with evaporation, starting off small in a saucepan, then gradually moving bigger onto the size of a bathtub. One of the more memorable moments was when I fell into a bath full of boiling brine and ended up with a burnt bottom, 9-percent burns—I've got the scars to prove it."

Halen Môn
Halen Mon sea salt. Photo courtesy Halen Mon.

Halen Môn salt is now exported to over 20 countries, sold in some of the UK's largest supermarkets, and used as an ingredient in Green & Black's chocolate and Walkers crisps. As a form of fleur de sel ("flower of salt") salt, it is used to add garnish and texture.

Harvesting fleur de sel salt requires heat, which causes the seawater to evaporate, leaving behind crystals. In the Mediterranean, sea salt is usually harvested outside, leaving it open to contamination from birds flying overhead. Halen Môn controls the production from inside its factory, pumping seawater inside the building and evaporating it in a closed vessel.

The Lea-Wilsons introduce me to Ronan Burns, Halen Môn's production manager, who offers to give me a tour of the factory. As I don a blue hairnet, overshoes, and lab coat, he explains: "Our sea salt is prepared, processed, and produced using water only from the Menai Strait—a 16-mile strip of sea that separates the island of Anglesey from the Welsh mainland. Our salt is more expensive than others out there, but that's because we don't take any shortcuts."

This approach seems to have paid off. Halen Môn salt was recently awarded Protected Designation of Origin status—the first Welsh product ever to have received this accolade. The status verifies that Halen Môn salt is made from Welsh seawater and on the Anglesey coast, positioning it alongside other protected food items like Cornish pasties and Parma ham.

Inside the factory, crystallisation tanks containing the salt water are heated with LPG heaters.

"From seawater to finished product, the whole process takes about two weeks. Everyday we use about as much water as a swimming pool can hold and last year, we made about 60 tonnes of sea salt," says Burns proudly.

But before this water even reaches the saltcote, it is passed through two natural filters—the mussel beds and high sandbanks—which add to the salt's whiteness.

"Once naturally filtered, the water is gently heated in a vacuum boiling at low temperatures, which gradually releases steam and turns into a brine solution," explains Burns. "When the concentration of salt is high enough the water is then released into crystallisation tanks. From there, they're blasted with LPG heaters at 55 degrees Celsius for 20 minutes at a time, and it's during the cooling phase when the crystals start to form on the surface of the water."

As the surface flakes become heavier, they sink to the bottom and are carefully skimmed by hand using giant stainless steel shovels. If the flakes are not the right size, the evaporation process is repeated.

"The salt we harvest is quite flaky and brittle, so the more we handle it, the more it'll break," explains Burns. "We want it as flaky as possible because we're after the big crystals that no one else can be bothered to put the effort into."

Salt flakes are rinsed in brine to improve taste and whiteness.

After the crystals have formed, the salt flakes are rinsed in concentrated brine, which will eventually dissolve. Fifty percent of the yield is lost in during this step.

"This is a commercial decision," Burns says, "but by soaking the salt flakes, this helps them glisten even more and gets rid of the chalk [calcium carbonate] and magnesium, which can add a bitter taste to the salt. This stage is a bit like panning for gold, but any leftover salt that falls through the perforated holes is redissolved, so there's no waste."

Standard salt manufacturers often skip this step and jump straight to the spin drier—essentially a giant tumble drier that dries and breaks up the salt quickly. But at Halen Môn, the salt is laid flat and dehydrated overnight to reduce the moisture percentage and prevent any further breakages. Finally, it is scanned for any impurities, weighed, and packed into different products or shipped off to other distributors.

David Lea-Wilson opens the door to the smoker.

David has also been experimenting with smoking the salt over oak to add different flavours.

"We've been doing salt for so long now that I've been playing around with different things like smoke," he says, removing a plank of wood keeping the smoker door closed. "Ever since Heston Blumenthal challenged me to somehow infuse smoke with water, we've been incorporating different flavours like smoke, umami, and vanilla in our salts."

Finally, it's time for the taste test. I leave Burns and follow David through to the factory's small shop to try the different flavours of salt. I place a few flakes of their signature Pure White Sea Salt in my mouth and as they slowly dissolve, I'm reminded of the sensation of catching snowflakes on your tongue. But instead of melting into nothing, the flavour of the salt seems to get stronger, growing into a mellow sweetness.

"That slight sweetness comes from the balance of calcium and magnesium," says David. "Some people—including Martha Stewart—have said that our salt tastes of the cleanest ocean."

Well, the Welsh do like to say they're the salt of the earth.