Perhaps you’ve heard one of your fancy food friends use the word terroir. It started in winemaking but has really made its way into the entire world of food production. Air quality, average temperature, mineral content in the soil or water supply, sun exposure – this all contributes to a certain flavor, a specific sense of place. (Terroir is what makes us New Yorkers 100% sure, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that no other bagel tastes like an NYC bagel!)
But you’re probably not familiar with merroir, and, hey, that’s OK! Steven and Natalie Judelson, founders of Amagansett Sea Salt, use that lesser-known term to explain what makes their sea salt so tasty. Hint: Mer.
Different parts of the ocean, not to mention different oceans entirely, are home to unique environments that affect seawater. The Judelsons hand-harvest clear and pristine Atlantic Ocean water off the coast of Long Island, not far from Montauk. They solar-evaporate the water outdoors, so the resulting salt crystals benefit from the sunshine and the clean, fresh ocean air in Amagansett, too.
We sat down with Steven and Natalie to learn more about how they got into this whole mer salt business.
ON FOOD AND CHILDHOOD Food in Natalie’s childhood was all about the big extended-family meal. Mine was about smaller family meals made by my Home-Ec-teacher mother, who banned salt from the kitchen after my father was diagnosed as hypertensive. But mealtime for both of us always meant family time. We were exposed to a variety of foods, taught to respect ingredients, expected to participate in meal preparation and encouraged to experiment.
HOW DID YOU LEARN TO HARVEST SEA SALT? We've been into sea salt for a long time. Perhaps it had to do with our proximity to and affinity for the ocean, but I think it just had more to do with the realization that salt was magical – a tiny bit makes everything taste better. On several trips abroad, we stumbled upon sea salt ponds. Fascinating – so simple and so unchanging! We took these experiences home and – mostly out of curiosity – tried to make it ourselves. We tried almost every imaginable method (boiling, drying, solar evaporating) in almost every possible container. We finally got pretty good making something we liked, and would make tiny batches for use in our own kitchen.
WHEN DID YOU DECIDE TO GO INTO BUSINESS? Natalie and I had made the decision to slow down at work – our law practices as well as my real estate development work – with the intention of enjoying life, our children and the beach. But, I got a bit fidgety and began to get on Natalie’s nerves. She suggested that there might be a business opportunity from our 13 years as hobbyist salt makers. I took up the challenge and, after LOTS of trial and error, we came up with a method that was scalable and up to our standards for taste and texture.
HOW IS YOUR SALT MADE? Our raw ingredient – seawater – comes from the Atlantic. We collect it by hand from the beach in Amagansett, New York, which is about 12 miles from the tip of Long Island. We first subject the seawater to a bunch of tests to confirm purity. Then, we wade out into the ocean and collect 100 to 150 gallons of water per outing. We take the seawater to our sea salt farm, which is also located in Amagansett and entirely outdoors. Clean air is as important as clean water and affects flavor. Clean water, clean air, clean salt. Back at the farm, we put the water through a series of steps to remove silt and other organics. Then it is “planted” in a series of “pans” where it evaporates in the sun and wind. We work in batches of approximately 120 gallons of seawater, which produces about 15 pounds of sea salt. The seawater becomes more concentrated. We monitor the evaporation carefully, frequently covering and uncovering the pans to keep out rain and condensation and, when necessary, to slow down the rate of evaporation to produce the type of crystals we want. Eventually, we’re left with highly saturated brine, and salt crystals start to form. When they’re ready, we harvest the salt crystals by hand. We mound the wet crystals on outdoor drying screens where the sun, wind and now gravity dry out the crystals. Once dry, we bring the salt in and put the crystals through a hand mill to fracture them into the proper size.
WHAT’S THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE IN SALTMAKING Weather! We constantly battle weather. Too hot, too cold, too humid, too windy, too much rain, too much snow. Unlike tides and waves that are too strong or too big, none of these are life threatening; they just affect evaporation, so that constant attention is needed. Salt that’s left to dry too long is bitter and hard. Salt that is harvested too soon lacks complexity of flavor. Getting it just right is tricky.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE BUSINESS? Creativity, and the chance to work together. Our sea salt business has also been a wonderful opportunity for us to meet and get to know an entirely new batch of hardworking and creative people in all stages of the food business. We knew many of these people as consumers, but now, being on the producer side, we have a new understanding and respect. We are enjoying the ride!