By Chris Davis / Photos by Adam DeTour
“I’ll be the one wading into the water with buckets.”
True to her word, it wasn’t hard to spot Heather Ahearn on a sparkling bright but chilly day in mid-winter. There she was, knee deep in the frigid, crystal clear water of a postcard Cape Ann strand, scooping the Atlantic Ocean into big white plastic tubs.
“I’m sure people on the beach think I’m crazy. But everyone goes about their business.” (Gotta love New Englanders!)
The method to Ahearn’s apparent madness today was to collect enough seawater to produce the next batch of Atlantic Saltworks’s fine finishing sea salt.
Together with her business partner, Alison Darnell, the energetic duo launched the company only last August, an undoubtedly more enticing time of year for a venture out to the beach to gather their single ingredient from their sole supplier.
Ahearn and Darnell met as freshmen at UMass Amherst and their quick friendship continued through graduate school at Babson College, where they each earned an MBA. “We always knew we wanted to start a business together, and we never knew when it would click,” recounts Ahearn. “But if someone had told us back then that it would be salt, we would not have believed them.”
So how do two highly educated, entrepreneurial Massachusetts natives with families and day jobs become gourmet salt mavens? “We both love food, so that was a natural direction,” Darnell says, with her co-owner nodding agreement. But the women had yet to identify a comestible that sparked their passion.
One day, recalls Ahearn, the women walked across the street from her home and collected a gallon of water from Salem Harbor and started boiling it. “We were giddy!,” she exclaims, when, miraculously, their grade school chemistry experiment succeeded: Atlantic Saltworks was born in the shiny white crystals that remained.
Well, actually, it was not quite that simple. The partners then had to set about the rigorous work of refining the process required to yield the delicate texture, brilliant color, and robust mineral flavor of their artisanal product.
First, there are the tides to keep an eye on. Then, the demanding labor of lugging 20 5-gallon (40-pound) buckets of surf onto the shore and into their cars (recently upgraded, mercifully, to a pump and tank operation). Next comes filtering of the raw brine to remove any sand and other particulates. Precise temperature and boiling time as well as constant monitoring are then required to develop the ideal consistency (apparently, you can mess up boiling water). The final steps include careful drying and packaging. Oh, and then there is the pesky matter of running a business: strategic plan, marketing and sales, promotion, administration, customer service, website, fulfillment, and all the other details inherent in a start-up.
Americans are genetically wired to know that the Tea Act of 1773 outraged and emboldened patriots and fomented the Boston Tea Party and ultimately, revolution. But, in fact, it was the embargo of salt, a result of the British naval blockade that proved the greater hardship for the colonial economy. Imported salt was critical to the preservation of local seafood—cod, of course, most famously—and the wartime restriction inspired Yankee ingenuity to create a new industry, one that proved successful beyond their best hopes. By 1832, there were over 800 saltworks operating on Cape Cod alone.
In Gloucester, legendary and hallowed ground zero of New England fisheries, salt became the lifeblood of the enormous preserved fish trade, dominated since 1874 by Gorton’s. By some kind of cosmic providence, 80 years after the advent of refrigeration sank the local salt harvesting industry, it is Gloucester where Atlantic Saltworks has found a home.
“The fate that has brought us to Gloucester is just fantastic,” says Ahearn. “The outpouring of support that we have gotten from the town was so unexpected. We think it’s really neat that we can take a historic product made with traditional methods and in some small way help Gloucester define its future. We are very excited to become part of such a unique community.”
So what sets Atlantic’s product apart from big-batch commercial “table” salt? Start by considering what it does not contain: iodine, calcium silicate, talc, dextrose (read: sugar), and what one household-name manufacturer’s label describes, frighteningly, as “active ingredients.”
Ironically, though, it is not the additives, but what the big boys strip out of their decoction—a variable potpourri of minerals—that gives unprocessed sea salt its distinct flavor and local character (“merroir,” Darnell calls it). That, and the appealing, delicate crunch and pretty frosting that a sprinkle of Atlantic brings to every food it decorates—from ripe summer tomatoes to ice cream.
While labor intensive and of the highest hand-made quality, Atlantic’s salt is not a fancy-schmancy, special occasion treat. The partners insist, “We want it to be accessible to everybody—from the meat and potatoes guy to the gourmet chef,” they say—an everyday enhancement to good cooking and eating.
“We have been told that our salt has a strong, clean, briny flavor, and we agree,” Ahearn asserts.
So, apparently, do local professional chefs and home cooks, since the company is just barely keeping up with demand from retailers and restaurants. And, as American kitchenistas discover the power of pure, lovingly conjured sea salt to brighten the flavor of every dish it dresses, Atlantic Saltworks—and the Atlantic—is there to help.
Atlantic Saltworks atlanticsaltworks.com
Chris Davis is a freelance food and travel writer who spent 29 years as an editor and executive in the publishing industry and seven years in the restaurant business, traveling the world in search of a food he doesn’t like (still looking). Chris lives just north of Boston where he can generally be found eating, growing, planning, preparing, or dreaming about his next meal.