By Stefanie Jackson – David and Anna Lee, of Cape Charles, may have come up with the perfect recipe for a small business in Northampton County – a blend of economic development and environmental sustainability, with a main ingredient that’s one of the world’s tastiest and simplest compounds: salt.
“We can’t make it fast enough,” Anna Lee said of the sea salt that has made their new business, Barrier Islands Salt, an overwhelming success.
The Lees made a special presentation at the Barrier Islands Center in Machipongo Sept. 20 to describe how they are renewing an old Eastern Shore tradition of salt making that can be traced back to Assateague Island and Smith Island.
Barrier Islands Salt is named after the product’s location of origin. David Lee, who is a boat captain, ventures about seven or eight miles out to Cobb Island and Wreck Island to harvest the sea salt.
The Lees plan to invest in water pumps to make collecting saltwater more efficient, but for now, the water is scooped up in five-gallon buckets.
Every two weeks, usually at high tide, David Lee collects 100 gallons of saltwater that will produce about 25 pounds of salt.
Since 100 gallons of saltwater weighs about 860 pounds, and water from the barrier islands has a salinity of 3.2%, the Lees would get about 27.5 pounds of salt from every batch of saltwater if they could extract every flake.
“You lose some in the process. You don’t get all 3.2% out. I wish we did,” remarked Anna Lee, who learned a lot about sea salt when she worked for a major spice manufacturer.
The saltwater is left undisturbed for one or two days, then it’s boiled in kettles. When the 100 gallons of water boil down to eight to 10 gallons of saltwater brine, it’s transferred to stainless steel pans.
The warm temperature of the stainless steel pans must be maintained and the water must remain still as it gradually evaporates, leaving behind “quite beautiful and amazing” flakes of sea salt, Anna Lee said.
Then it’s time to start scooping. Once the water evaporates enough that only two or three gallons remain, “we’re just scooping salt out the whole time,” David Lee said. This part of the process takes about 10 hours.
Some businesses use saltwater ponds to make salt, and the finished product must be scooped off the top of the pond to avoid scooping up dirt along with the salt.
The Lees’ salt-making process allows them to scoop salt from the bottom of a clean pan, where bigger flakes form.
The salt is transferred to trays that are racked up in a drying room, a dehumidified space where the salt will stay for seven to 10 days. It’s raked so it dries evenly.
The salt-making process starts in an open-air environment, with overhead coverings protecting the evaporation pans from debris.
As an added measure, before packing the salt, Anna Lee “meticulously scrutinizes literally every flake” to ensure that only salt makes its way into each jar, she said.
Barrier Islands Salt is currently found in 30 retail locations from Chincoteague to Hampton Roads and as far as Charlottesville, Va., about four hours from the Eastern Shore.
Anna Lee plans to offer new sea salt products in the future, including a seafood seasoning blend. She makes rosé sea salt using another local product, Chatham Vineyards rosé wine, and she is interested in partnering with a Virginia distillery to make Scotch salt. Partnering with a local caramel maker to create barrier islands salted caramels is also on Lee’s wish list.
But the business opportunities don’t stop there. The Lees, who also run a boat tour business, offer a “champagne and salt making” private, six-guest boat tour of the barrier islands.
They will bring business to Cheriton this November when they open a new location in a repurposed, 1936 gas station. It will be a combined salt production facility and general store selling sea salt and many other goods. Tours of the production facility will be available.
Barrier Islands Center Executive Director Laura Vaughan called David and Anna Lee artists, and Barrier Islands Salt is their composition.
“Time and love” are among the ingredients in all-natural Barrier Islands Salt, Vaughan said, and the quality of the product is worth its price.
The Lee’s business is “securing the Shore” and “keeping it going,” Vaughan said.
Making salt again on the Eastern Shore helps the region restore a little piece of its history and “hang on to its most preciousness.”