Seawater + sun + wind = salt
Photo courtesy of MV Sea Salt
In 1999, Curtis Friedman and Heidi Feldman bought property in the woods of Tisbury, determined to find another way of life for themselves. The married couple were living in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston at the time and Ms. Feldman was working in the computer and corporate education fields. Mr. Friedman is a carpenter who currently works for South Mountain Company.
"After so many years working with computers in an office environment I needed something that was real," says Ms. Feldman. "I had a desire to do something that added to our culture." And so the couple converted part of their 10 acres into Down Island Farm. However, the heavily wooded property was not ideal for traditional crops. "Our land is not suited to farming," says Ms. Feldman. "It's sand and clay. We knew our limitations."
Undaunted, they pursued alternatives. For the past nine years the couple has grown herbs and edible flowers, which they sell to restaurants. They raise bees for honey and gather – for their own use – eggs from their ducks and chickens. The farm is also home to a few goats, a mini horse, two dogs, and a cat.
From 2005 to 2009, they supplied shitake mushrooms to local restaurants. However, a caterpillar scourge eventually decimated the oak trees on which the mushrooms grow, effectively killing off that business. But the owners of Down Island Farm have proven themselves tenacious and innovative in their farming. "Our efforts have been towards supplying something to the palate that wasn't already there," she continues, commenting on their desire to fill the market gaps on the Vineyard.
When the mushroom crop failed, the ever resourceful Ms. Feldman hit on the idea of harvesting sea salt. Her initial inspiration came two years ago when she was munching on a bag of sea salt and vinegar potato chips purchased as an economical lunch from Alley's General Store. "I started running the idea of sea salt over in my head," she says. "Coincidentally I ran into a friend of mine who had started making small batches in his kitchen."
She and Mr. Feldman did a lot of research and finally launched their business last year. The process involves collecting, filtering, drying, and finally gathering and packaging the finished product. The couple collects the salt water in two ways: by hand–hauling five-gallon pails back and forth from the ocean to a large container on the beach–and mechanically, by using a small device to pump the water from the ocean directly into a container on their truck.
The water is filtered twice – first to remove seaweed and large natural debris and then to filter out smaller organisms. Never one to waste anything, Ms. Feldman feeds the brine shrimp to the chickens. The salt water is placed in man-made shallow evaporator ponds situated in clear polycarbonate-covered hoop houses, which intensify the sunlight. "Solar baking," is how she describes the process. The needed convection (heat distribution) is provided by the wind so the process, unlike that used in commercial drying, is completely natural. The M.V. Sea Salt tag line is "From the sea. By the sun."
It takes from four to six weeks for the water to evaporate. The dried product is then formed into piles with sanitized rake-like tools. The mounding allows for final drainage of any excess water. The ratio of seawater to collectible salt is about four to one.
Ms. Feldman and Mr. Friedman started selling the salt to local restaurants last year. This summer, for the first time, the products are available at local markets. M.V. Sea Salt Company offers a .3-ounce container called "The Traveler" which sells for $4, a two-ounce sack called "The Hostess" attractively packaged in a muslin bag for gifting and a four-ounce bag called "The Crave." Both the latter sell for $13.
Eventually, Ms. Feldman will experiment with flavored salts using indigenous ingredients like sassafras, blueberries, and honey.
The product is coarser and somewhat more moist than your standard salt. It won't flow from a salt shaker. Ms. Feldman refers to it as a finishing salt. It's meant to be spooned or sprinkled with the fingers onto food. It is not intended for cooking.
Although the salt is not cheap, a little goes a long way. It has much more of a bite than commercial salt and a more complex flavor. "It taste saltier and it also has a buttery feel in your mouth," says Ms. Feldman. "It tastes like the ocean. A lot of people say it reminds them of the salty taste in shellfish – without the fishiness."
As well as the superior flavor, sea salt has a lot going for it over commercially processed salt, according to Ms. Feldman. "It's a whole food salt," she says, "It has all of the trace minerals that come from the ocean. It offers minerals that are missing from land-mined salt and highly manufactured sea salts that sometimes have their minerals removed for sale for other products. Commercial salt producers also often use drying agents, anti-caking agents and whitening agents."
In the collaborative spirit of the Vineyard, other small local companies are now using M.V. Sea Salt in a variety of products. It can be found in chocolates from Not Your Sugar Mamas and Enchanted Chocolates, and in exfoliant products from Scrubby Neck Soaps and Miss Mary Cosmetics.
Ms. Feldman sells the salt at the West Tisbury Farmers Market and the Oak Bluffs Open Market, along with herbs and nasturtiums. Eventually she will offer another unusual item – peacock feathers from the farm's small flock. Although they tend to keep her up at night with their loud calls in the mating season, Ms. Feldman says that the peacocks eat an enormous amount of bugs, and she's very fond of their eggs. "They're big and beautiful and they're pink. I like them better than duck eggs," she says.
Since Ms. Feldman seems to be always thinking outside the box, who knows. A peacock farm would seem to be an ideal fledgling business for a couple who have made their mark providing unique farm products to the Vineyard.
For more information, call Down Island Farm at 508-560-3315, or visit mvseasalt.com.