The ancient art of salt panning on the east coast is alive and thriving, finds Nick Hammond when he visits Maldon in Essex.
Country Life goes salt panning in Maldon, Essex
The fresh, ozone-sweet taste of the North Sea has brought culinary fame through the ages to this corner of England. Salt from the small town of Maldon is renowned worldwide and Steve Osborne, managing director of the Maldon Salt Company (01621 853315; www.maldonsalt.co.uk), is the latest in his family to be responsible for harvesting salt from the sea and getting it on our tables. ‘My great-grandfather purchased Maldon Salt in 1922,’ he says from the company’s latest HQ in the town. ‘I’m evangelical about it—it’s such a great product, so simple and so tasty, that I love talking to people about it.’
Taking over from his father, Clive, at the turn of the century, Mr Osborne says the rise of the celebrity chef has been instrumental in increasing awareness of the brand in recent years. ‘When Delia [Smith] published a book in 2000, she mentioned her love for our salt. The next day, I had to throw away page after page of faxes because I knew I could never fulfill the orders. As a young, ambitious person, I was furious. It was more obvious than ever that we had to grow fast if we wanted to keep up.’
As a result, the ancient art of salt panning on the east coast—basically, boiling seawater to form the crystal flakes of sea salt—was given a new lease of life in the 21st century.
Production has now increased from three to 19 saltpans and there are new packaging and production facilities, but the actual process has remained unchanged since it began in Roman times. At spring tide, full moon and new moon, thousands of gallons of seawater are taken—under licence—as the water submerges the rich saltmarshes. This run of water is at its most saline and, after basic filtering, it’s pumped into large steel pans and gently boiled.
The resultant pyramidical crystals—which form the company’s logo and adorn every box—are hand harvested or drawn to create piles of sea salt. These are then removed, dried and packed to be sold. It’s as simple as that. ‘Nothing is added, nothing taken away,’ says Mr Osborne.
These days, Maldon Sea Salt sells worldwide and in every major supermarket in the UK, where its delicate, slightly sweet taste is beloved by chefs and home cooks alike. ‘It’s an absolutely pure salt that tastes of the sea,’ says Delia Smith. Nigel Slater is even more succinct: ‘When I say salt, I mean Maldon Sea Salt.’
Mr Osborne maintains that, although technology might have changed, the spirit of the company remains the same. ‘My grandfather used to make salt four days a week and deliver it on Fridays,’ he says. ‘He’d take off with his van full of sacks and soon my grandmother would have to ring around to try to track him down. he’d stop for a cup of tea and a chat with every customer along the way.’
He adds: ‘Although the scale of our business has changed beyond all recognition, the product certainly hasn’t. We employ 30 people here in town and we still love doing it. It’s part of my heritage and it’s part of the town’s heritage.’
Mr Osborne advises tasting Maldon salt on a simple, sliced tomato, which is why my lunch today is sourced entirely from the green- grocer. Crumbling the crystal flakes is joyous anticipation; they soften and buckle like new-formed snow where moisture seeps through. The taste is the surge of a full-moon high tide: loamy earth and saltmarsh communing in crescendo. It’s a reminder that, often, simplest is best. And those crafty Romans knew a thing or two.
More about Maldon
- The Domesday Book of 1086 lists no fewer than 45 working saltpans in the town of Maldon. Four of these were owned by Edward the Confessor
- When the Salt Tax was abolished in 1825, virtually all Maldon saltmakers disappeared. The Maldon Salt Company remained, although it only started trading under this name in 1882
- Mr Osborne is the fourth generation of his family to run the Maldon Salt Company
- On its 130th anniversary in 2012, the company was granted a Royal Warrant and is now the official purveyor of sea salt to The Queen