Four friends set up the Isle of Skye Sea Salt Company in 2011 with the aim of producing a high quality, gourmet sea salt, with minimum impact on the beautiful environment around them. The last known attempt to produce sea salt on the Isle of Skye was made in the early 1700’s on the Sleat peninsula.
Directors Chris Watts and Nanette Muir investigated the production of sea salt to find an environmentally friendly process and decided, after a year of trials, to use a solar evaporation method utilising ponds within polytunnels. Their salt was launched to the local market in September 2013, and became available nationally from Spring 2014.
Locavore spoke with Chris and Nanette about salt, sea, and being off-grid.
You set up the Isle of Skye Sea Salt Company in 2011. What brought you to the decision to do so?
Living on an island which has such a pristine environment but is also recognised as one of Scotland’s key food destinations gave us the idea of combining the two. We knew from our personal interest in local culture that salt was produced on Skye around the 1700s. This, and the fact that the water around the Isle of Skye has been awarded the highest quality classification, led us to investigate the production of sea salt through an environmentally friendly process.
You went through a year of trials to work out the best and most environmentally friendly method of production. What is it about solar evaporation that made you choose it over other methods?
We are passionate about the local environment and provenance of our food. The aim for our business and processes is to adhere to these principles. We are determined that our business has almost zero impact on the local environment, and in doing so we can ensure the production technique is sustainable.
Solar evaporation is a natural process meaning that we don’t need to use any grid electricity in producing our salt (in fact we have no grid connection on our site) and so are totally dependent on the sun and wind in the production of our salt. It also allows us to use a single stage evaporation process that ensures that we retain all the trace minerals from the sea in our salt. This gives our salt the distinctive taste and texture that people love.
There is a long history of salt production on coastal areas of Scotland. We recently spoke to Sam Britten of Orkney Craft Vinegar, who brew vinegar using ancient landrace barley. It seems that there is a growing movement of people looking to the past for inspiration in how to do things in a more ecologically aware way for the future – do you think this is the case? Was it a factor for you in choosing to do what you do?
For us, the fact that there had been a local salt producer on Skye and that salt had been widely produced across Scotland right up to the 19th Century did influence us, but we wanted to marry that history with the current focus on sustainable, low impact production. Increasingly people want to be sure that the food they eat is produced in an ethical and responsible way, and sustainable food production is the common sense approach as we face the challenges of the 21st Century.
We were delighted to have our approach endorsed by Slow Food Scotland and accepted into the Slow Food International ‘Ark of Taste’. Now that people are taking a greater interest in their health and wellbeing, there is a real focus on food production techniques and their impact on the environment. People are becoming far more concerned with the traceability and sustainability of what they consume.
What are the environmental factors you considered when deciding on your approach? And what are the challenges facing a modern producer releasing a product onto a market so dominated by mass-production and plastic-heavy supply lines?
A key priority is our local landscape and ensuring we have a minimal impact on what is one of the most stunning locations in which to work. No matter what time of year we turn up to work at our evaporation site, we can do nothing first but admire the scenery.
To minimise our impact on our location we made sure our site was not taking productive land out of use, all spoil from levelling the site was retained and used to create a protective bund around the site, pretty much all the materials are recyclable at end of life and we have used recycled materials where possible. The site can be returned to its natural state if the business is no longer based there. This focus on our environmental impacts is what won us the Highlands and Islands Food and Drink Environment Award in 2014.
Most of the problems associated with mass-production competitors we share with all small producers, and our remote location only enhances the issues as we face increased costs for transportation of both purchases and sales. It’s impossible for us to compete on price or availability with larger scale businesses and so we have to be much more focused on targeting the right audience, who appreciate the intrinsic value of what do and how we do it. We live by our reputation for our provenance and our commitment to sustainable production.
You say your salt tastes unique. Why do you think this is the case? Is your salt an expression of the ‘terroir’ of Skye in the same way as a wine can translate the landscape?
Yes, the uniqueness of our salt is absolutely characterised by the local environment, and especially the sea water of course, but also the production techniques. The Isle of Skye Sea Salt Company is the only seasonal producer of sea salt in the UK using a 100% natural and sustainable solar evaporation technique. Our natural process combined with the pristine local environment is simply not matched anywhere else. It has been fantastic to have the flavour of our salt recognised with a variety of awards – the proof really is in the taste.
Historically, salt was one of the most important foodstuffs produced. Do you think, in a world of fears over sustainability and food security, that it will once again become a key ingredient, economically or otherwise, for the UK?
It is unlikely that salt will recover its historical economic status but it will continue to be an absolutely essential ingredient in cooking in the UK; it is present in almost every meal we consume and there is every sign that this will continue even with the introduction of alternatives such as seaweed products.
In today’s modern world we can produce almost anything very cheaply through unnatural and man-made processes but, as people become more educated and concerned with what they consume and how it is produced, there will be a greater opportunity for sustainably produced ingredients and food such as ours.
Your yields are determined by the weather to a great extent, and you only produce limited amounts of salt – does this hamper you in any way? For instance, would you like to expand the business?
The interest in, and demand for, our gourmet sea salt has been fantastic. However, as a small producer we have to be very careful to manage supply and demand. We can’t suddenly expand our production as it takes up to 12 months to plan and build another pond and we don’t want to over commit sales and disappoint customers. We are currently in the process of developing our expansion plans and these are focused on ensuring that we remain true to our ethos of natural production techniques. The weather, while important to our production, is unlikely to change so dramatically that it will affect our expansion plans.
What are your hopes and fears for the future, both of Skye Sea Salt Company and the wider questions of food production and sustainability?
Skye Sea Salt Company hopes that we can continue to meet the demand for gourmet sea salt and that there continues to be growth in the ethically produced food market. Our fear would be that people become over reliant on unsustainable food production techniques and become ignorant of how food is produced and how these methods affect the environment.
Finally, why do you do what you do?
Simply – our wonderful product and the reaction of the people who taste it. That is very satisfying. Despite having no experience in the food industry, we have managed to create a business in a rural location, based on a local sustainable resource, which we hope will continue to be part of our community into the future.
Find the Isle of Skye Sea Salt Company on Twitter here.
For their website, click here.
Photography: Cailean Maclean