words by emily gelsomin - photographs by kristin teig
Brian Mercury is a man on a mission— for salt. I am on my maiden voyage with him to Ogunquit, Maine for seawater, more specifically for its “white gold,” as he calls it. The fortune is his handmade sea salt, which Mercury has deemed “the gold of the ocean.” He has made this drive a handful of times since becoming the executive pastry chef of Harvest restaurant, in Harvard Square, Cambridge last fall. He is unwavering in his love of dessert and is serious about using local ingredients, right down to sourcing salt from the waters of New England.
It is hard not to be charmed by this endeavor. During our trip to the ocean Mercury’s dad calls, warning to watch out for sea monsters. Pinned to the top of the chef’s driver’s side sun visor is a button that reads, “I am the secret ingredient.” Mercury’s passion for thoughtful pastry and adventurous spirit is no secret, though. He has “BAKE” tattooed in bold block lettering on the inside of his wrist and a sugar skull inked up his arm, amid a number of other vivid images. When asked what his favorite ingredient is, he replies, “Besides Taza?” implying this is a given. At Harvest, the Somerville-based company is Mercury’s first choice for chocolate. A resident of Somerville himself, he describes Taza as “what chocolate is supposed to taste like.” “Using it helps support local businesses, but it also just tastes better. It’s vibrant. They stone grind the chocolate in a traditional Mexican-style and that attention to the process is important.”
Perhaps not so surprisingly, Mercury has selected a Taza-based dessert at Harvest to debut his white gold. The dessert features a chocolate cremeux—which he describes as a cross between fudge and mousse—containing a sea-salted caramel center with sea-salted caramel barley and a malted milk chocolate sauce topped with vanilla-whipped mascarpone. He uses his homemade salt exclusively in this recipe because, as he says with a smirk, “chocolate and salt go well together; salt and caramel go well together; and salt, chocolate, and caramel go well together. I wanted to showcase that and let people see [the salt].”
If Mercury has his way, this chocolate dessert is only the beginning. Eventually he would like to use solely his own salt in the desserts at Harvest, estimating that the pastry department currently goes through a pound or two of conventional salt each week. Mercury would also love to have small dishes of his handcrafted salt on each table. “I’ll probably need to get a few more buckets,” he says about how he might increase his production; he uses the buckets to collect and carry the seawater back to his Cambridge-based restaurant. His first goal, however, is to perfect the salt itself and learn its intricacies by experimenting with the salt-making process. He tells me of his plans to play with pan depth and rate of water evaporation in an attempt to affect the size of the salt crystal. Safe to say I have never seen someone so excited about a salt grain.
As he describes the salt, he speaks of its source. “It’s very briny with a clean, in-your-face mineral aspect,” which he attributes toMaine’s cold water and its abundance of rocks. If you subscribe to the notion of terroir, such a description makes sense. Terroir, a term originally developed by the French to describe their region-specific wines, leans heavily on the importance of “sense of place,” drawing from both the characteristics of the land as well as the production methods intended to honor the land. Mercury notes he recently made salt on a vacation inFloridaand found the end result noticeably more mild, adding credence to the subtleties of terroir.
It is hard to disagree with such a belief on our journey, which ends at a beach only about an hour outside ofBoston. It is a crisp day and though the sun is shining, there is a chill in the air. As we get closer to the spot Mercury has researched, the roads get smaller, and decidedly more winding. I get a glimpse of the source of his white gold as the last few miles of our drive butt up against the craggy sea edge, revealing waves crashing on black jagged rocks. When we get to the beach it is fairly empty, apart from a few vacationing families. Mercury tries to collect the water in late fall and early spring when the beaches are less crowded. Once we park, he wastes little time and sets off for the sand. He trudges into the surf with waders that do not go up nearly high enough. As small waves crash on him, cold water slips into the top of his boots. He braces, plunges his neon orange paint buckets into the surf, pauses for a moment to look out at the sea, and then heads back towards the car. And just like that, our ingredient collection is over.
Mercury manages to gather ten gallons of seawater and we set off to his kitchen to begin the salt-making process. Once we are back in the kitchen, he pours the water into stainless steel lobster pots covered with cheesecloth to catch anything that might be floating in it. As I peer into pots I see movement, a few tiny gray bits of sea life swirling about. Perhaps not the sea monsters his father had warned him about, but something to keep an eye out for just the same. They serve as a little reminder that our seawater was in the ocean an hour earlier. “That’s why you strain it,” Mercury says, placing three pots filled with ocean water on the stovetop. He explains that he uses stainless steel because he has found that other pots can impart off colors and flavors to the salt. The subsequent step is to cook down the water by letting it boil away.
For the next few hours, nothing much happens, except the consumption of a few (locally brewed) beers and some chatting about how he developed his salt-making process. Somewhat ironically, the inspiration came from Not Without Salt, the site of aspiring pastry chef turned food blogger, Ashley Rodriguez. “She posted about making the salt with her family and it seemed so easy. I thought, why aren’t more people doing this?” says Mercury. Admittedly, it is a pretty basic process, albeit a painfully slow one. It is quite literally watching water boil. As time creeps on, my doubts begin to creep in. After hour three, something finally starts to happen. At this stage only a few inches of liquid remain in the pots. Soon a shiny gloss starts to form on the surface of the water. Almost out of nowhere, the mixture gets cloudy. Mercury grabs a wooden spoon and starts to stir the pot. As he continues to stir the mixture gets thicker and thicker, first resembling a roux and then a drier paste. He turns the heat down to avoid scorching his white gold. Moments later, the paste becomes the item we have spent all day procuring: salt. He pours the salt onto sheet pans and we sample a little with our fingers. It’s briny and sharp; it has a bit of a bite to it and tastes slightly as you might expect slate would. It is much more complex than kosher salt and finer than fleur de sel. It is unlike any other salt I have experienced and tasting it calls to mind the way your hair feels after a day at the beach.
In the end, our ten gallons of seawater make just five cups of salt, which is only enough to get through about a week of dessert service at Harvest. So for now, Mercury is rationing the salt. His white gold. After experiencing it, I see he has every right to. The handcrafted salt does more than just season, it highlights the subtleties of the region it is from and helps bring out the essence of the food it flavors. Spending the day with Mercury, I could even argue that he is not so different from the salt he makes. The chef himself—if you can pardon the pun—is a salt-of-the-earth type. “I’ll do whatever I need to if I’m excited about [the ingredient],” says Mercury. He is thoughtful and passionate in his support of staying as local as possible. He is also a firm believer in using the best of what is around him and it’s clear to see he is pretty nuts over his salt. It’s white gold, after all. It’s his secret ingredient.
Emily Gelsomin is a freelance food writer and the author of Boston-based food blog, A Plum By Any Other Name. She is currently working on a Master of Liberal Arts in Gastronomy at Boston University and is also a registered dietitian who enjoys making her own butter at home. Emily can be reached on Twitter (@aplumby) or at firstname.lastname@example.org.