By Sean Horgan
---- — SOMEWHERE ON CAPE ANN — The location of the harvest is a secret because ... well, because the Salt Ladies want to keep it that way. And it does not do to cross the Salt Ladies.
The unseasonably balmy 40-degree temperatures of Martin Luther King Jr. Day have drawn Alison Darnell and Heather Ahearn — along with their 28 large plastic buckets — to this small public beach that, for reasons of competitive advantage, shall remain nameless.
Even on holidays, the salt show must go on.
Waterproofed from their feet up and double-gloved, the two women spend the next hour lugging the empty buckets into the sea and returning to terra firma with 5 gallons of pristine Cape Ann seawater in each — the very nectar that begins the process to produce mounds of pure gourmet sea salt for discerning gourmands and seat-of-the-pants cooks alike.
Ahearn and Darnell are founders, senior executives, cooks and chief seawater Sherpas for Atlantic Saltworks, a fledgling North Shore-based company that produces gourmet sea salt for sale on the company’s website and, up to this point, at a limited number of retail locations, such as The Cave in Gloucester.
They started the company in August. Basically, at least for now, it is run out of their respective homes — Salem for Ahearn and Wakefield for Darnell.
When it’s time to cook the salt from the seawater, operations shift to the shared commercial kitchen the company leases in Amesbury, where the seawater is boiled to produce the briny flake finishing sea salt that is the rage in the cooking world. The yield is about 3 ounces per gallon of water.
”It just tastes better,” Darnell said. “We don’t use anti-caking agents like a big company might use, and we don’t take anything from the salt, and we don’t add anything to it.”
Once collected, the seawater is allowed to settle. Then it is filtered to remove organic impurities and boiled to produce the salt.
The whole enterprise started with the boiling of 1 gallon of seawater out of Salem Harbor on Ahearn’s kitchen stove, just to see if they could do it.
”We actually made salt, and we were hooked,” Darnell said. “But it’s one thing to boil down a gallon of water on your stove to produce salt and another to consistently produce the finest flake.”
The women, both 39, hold MBAs from Babson College and day jobs in traditional businesses. But that 1 gallon of water turned their hearts to salt.
The idea in hand, they embarked on their research.
They investigated the history of salt and identified those companies — such as Maldon Salt Co. in Essex, England — regarded as the producers of the finest flake and finishing salt. They checked with local and state regulatory about the propriety of freely harvesting seawater from public areas and with health agencies for the applicable standards.
Then they hit the road, traveling the North Shore coastline from Newburyport to Salem, sampling and testing the seawater, searching for the right salinity and the highest purity. That search ultimately led them to Cape Ann, where they found what they considered the very best water for what they believe is the among the best sea salts anyone is making.
”We narrowed it down to a couple places we liked because of the taste of the salt and because they just felt like it was the right places to be,” Ahearn said.
They even performed a blind taste-test of salts made from seawater from varying spots.
”It was very slight, but you could tell the difference ,and we knew that one was slightly better than the other,” Darnell said. “It’s amazing what we’ve learned in a short time. Salt is all we talk about. My husband is so bored with it.”
Though they started the company in August, Darnell said they didn’t even attempt their first sale until November. Much of the work now involves marketing the product and getting the word out to chefs and everyday cooks, making them aware of the daily uses for what often is regarded as a somewhat precious spice.
”We don’t want folks to think of it as so super-special that you’re only going to take it out and use it on special occasions,” Darnell said.
They’ve also expanded their product line to include salt blends and are looking at the possibility of expanding into brines or spice rubs.
The marketing is a bit of a small-ball effort, involving word-of-mouth and local food shows. Joey Ciaramitaro gave them a shout-out on the highly popular “GoodMorningGloucester” blog. They also have been invited to showcase their salt at some of the region’s most prestigious food shows, such as Eat Boutique magazine’s Boston Holiday Market during the Christmas season, as well as the upcoming SoWash open market in Boston.
The goal for Atlantic Saltworks is to centralize cooking and packaging operations in one exclusive location, with Gloucester as the women’s primary choice.
”I have to say we’ve felt extremely welcome in Gloucester,” Ahearn said.
In crafting their own Gloucester connection, according to Justin Demetri — a Cape Ann historian with the Essex Shipbuilding Museum — the Salt Ladies will add to a long historical line of Gloucester’s connection with salt.
”Gloucester, at the turn of the (19th) century, was the world’s largest importer of salt,” Demetri wrote in response to an email request. “It was the largest fishing fleet in the Western Hemisphere and one of the last great salt fish ports.
The death knell for the industry, however, came with the establishment of fresh fish markets in Boston and elsewhere around 1850.
”As people’s tastes changed, salt fish’s market share would slowly decrease,” Demerit said. “By the arrival of flash freezing in the 1920s, Gloucester’s salt fishing fleet was on its last legs.”
Now, almost 100 years later, Gloucester’s role in the salt business may be reawakening — thanks to the Salt Ladies.
Sean Horgan may be contacted at 978-675-2714, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT