Maldon is a small town of 14,000 on the Blackwater estuary in Essex, England. In the first century AD, it was at the forefront of Anglo-Saxon and Viking conflicts but since then, not much has happened.
Not much aside from the fact that it has become one of the world's best known producers of salt.
Mark Bitterman, the world's first ever "selmelier" calls Maldon salt the "gold standard of unflappable, balanced crispness." US sea salt distributors Saltworks say it's "the finest salt available," and the unique crystals are recommended by luminaries as diverse as Jeffrey Steingarten and Delia Smith.
But what makes Maldon salt so special?
To get to the bottom of this, you need to first understand that there are a number of different ways to gather salt. You can dig it out of the ground, you can make it in a factory, or extract it from the sea.
Salt also comes in a variety of forms, from large, solid crystals to fine grains and flat plates. Most of the "fancy" forms of sea salt that you sprinkle directly over food—rather throwing into boiling water—are a type of fleur de sel ("flower of salt"). To make fleur de sel, you take a bunch of sea water, leave it in the sun, and wait for the crystals to naturally form.
But Maldon isn't a fine grain nor a fleur de sel. Instead, the crystals take the unique form of a hollow, square-based pyramid.
This affects how the salt crumbles between your fingers. It's also pretty cool to look at, meaning that the pure white sparkles found on high end restaurant tables are usually from Maldon.
Despite the uniqueness of their salt, Maldon as a company are pretty shy. Their headquarters stands on an industrial estate behind a supermarket, they do little direct marketing, and have no visitor centre. When I arrive at their head office, I'm greeted by a staff of about five people and Steve Osborne, the fourth-generation family owner.
"Like any industry that's been going back so far, it tends to be about the geology of the landscape," he explains, when I comment on how unusual his product is. "The geology here is the salt marshes that surrounds the shores of the east coast, an ecosystem that is hundred of thousands years old."
You see, top quality salt—like all the other good stuff—is a product of geography, place, environment. The combination of these is what has made this part of a the world a salt manufacturing centre since the at least Roman times.
"Essex is one of the driest counties because the south-west prevailing winds from the Atlantic drop the rain in Cornwall and the south coast," says Osborne. "By the time they sweep up over us, we're blessed with pretty dry weather, which means that the salinity of the water is actually pretty good."
In fact, the name "Blackwater" is a derivation of "brackish water" or "salty water." The combination of marshy coastline, low rainfall, and steady prevailing winds make the sea here is saltier than elsewhere.
"On the spring tides, all the salt that's crystalised over the two weeks gets washed up and redissolved into the sea," adds Osborne. "So you get a more saline content on the high spring tides."
After a cup of tea, we head out to look at the coast before Osborne shows me the saltworks, still operating out of the original Victorian building nestled alongside the river. The first thing that strikes me is its heat and humidity—something that's perhaps a little naive given that this is a room primarily used for boiling seawater.
"We pump in the seawater from the mid-water table, this is where the saltiest water is," he explains. "We take that water, filter it through sand, put it in settlement tanks, and let the sediment sink to the bottom. It's then pumped into a pan and by a process of evaporation, we make a brine solution."
This brine solution is then boiled down, before being skimmed for impurities known in the trade as "lees."
"As the brine gets stronger, fractional crystallisation happens, which means that as the brine gets more concentrated, crystals form on the surface of the water," Osborne continues.
After the salt has been raked, the leftover "brine seed" is added to seawater, which acts kind of like a sourdough starter, bumping up the salinity and getting the process started.
"As we heat it, it grows in size and weight and eventually falls to the bottom and sinks," explains Osborne. "The process occurs like snow, this is why you get the pyramid structure. We do that for a whole 24-hour cycle and we never evaporate all the brine as that is the catalyst for the next batch."
By maintaining a precise temperature, the seed crystal sinks slightly below the surface while another layer of crystal forms on the surface. When this is too heavy, it sinks and another forms (and so on and so forth.) Some mind-boggling processes take place in the surface-area-of-crystal-to-buoyancy-ratio but basically, the end point is a pyramid.
Once these pyramid crystals have achieved a certain size, they fall to the bottom of the brine and are raked up by hand, before being shovelled into bins and dried in a kind of huge tumble drier. After drying, the salt is scanned for impurities, weighed, and packed.
Apart from the production line and salt drier, the technique behind Maldon salt hasn't changed much in over 100 years.
And why should it? The flakes I watch Osborne dig his hands into are huge; a shining pile of pure white pyramids. When people have been able to extract a marvel of nature and put it on the plate, there's really not much to improve on.