In Wellfleet, a process worth its (sea) salt
TRURO — Here are some ingredients for a winning recipe: sun, seawater, muscle, a pick up truck, two energetic entrepreneurs, and a dash of salt. Actually, a whole lot more than a dash.
Zack Fagiano and Hope Schwartz-Leeper, two savvy 22-year-old Skidmore College grads, launched Wellfleet Sea Salt Co. last year after winning $5,000 in the school’s business competition. Judges were impressed by the couple’s eco-friendly and low-budget plan to harvest sea salt.
Spurred by Cape Cod’s history of salt production, the two decided to start their business here when Schwartz-Leeper, who spent family vacations in Wellfleet, brought Fagiano here.
When the tide is right, Fagiano and Schwartz-Leeper head to Lieutenant Island in Wellfleet. They park their Ford pickup at water’s edge and fill 50-gallon barrels with seawater from under the bridge over Wellfleet Bay. Layers of cheesecloth filter out sand and silt. Then they pump the water into three triangular, wood-framed greenhouses they built themselves on a sliver of Truro farmland. Each greenhouse holds 200 gallons of water and has plastic coverings ventilated on the sides to let wind pass. “A nice breeze will help water vapor escape,” says Schwartz-Leeper.
Patience is essential. The two must wait for sunny days to help evaporate the seawater, leaving behind sodium chloride crystals, or sea salt. “The greenhouses trap heat and as the water evaporates you can see crystals emerge,” says Fagiano. That can take about a week in summer, he says, and a month in winter.
The two then grind the briny tasting crystals in a food processor and pour the sea salt into stubby 3-ounce jars. Each pinch is a snow-white heap of teeny cubes, pyramids, and grains that crunch between your teeth to make a flavorsome finishing or cooking salt. They’ve already bottled 1,500 jars to sell to stores and at farmers’ markets. A jar costs about $8.
The Cape has a long history in producing salt, which was an essential preserving element for early settlers. “All of the towns on Cape Cod had saltworks on the shores and it was a major source of income in the early decades of the 1800s,” says Jennifer Stone Gaines, executive director of Woods Hole Historical Museum. But the industry faded away by the 1890s with the arrival of the railroad and the discovery of salt mines in upstate New York.
When they first started, Fagiano says, their experimental phase included greenhouses on repurposed oyster barges afloat in Cape Cod Bay near Dennis. The two took a rowboat out to cultivate the salt. But the water was too brackish and their system too laborious. With permission from the owners to put greenhouses on their Truro land, harvesting salt from the waters surrounding Lieutenant Island was a better choice.
On a recent Sunday morning, Schwartz-Leeper is gathering salt crystals scattered between little puddles inside a greenhouse, which can reach 160 degrees. Each gallon of seawater yields about 4½ ounces of salt. Crystals that look like ice cling to a food-grade plastic covering, and she scrapes them off with a putty knife, brushing the mineral into a dustpan. “We do everything by hand and every tool we use is for something else,” says Fagiano. Some clumps are still slightly wet, which is a good thing because some moisture helps retain the salt’s flavor and structure.
After a string of cool, rainy days the duo is thrilled that the sky cleared and the sun finally came out; they have orders to fill. And perhaps a swim to take.
Starting their own company was one way to insure they were employed after graduation.
WELLFLEET SEA SALT is available at American Provisions, 613 Broadway, South Boston, 617-269-6100; Formaggio Kitchen South End, 268 Shawmut Ave., Boston, 617-350-6996; Cambridge Naturals, 23 White St., Cambridge, 617-492-4452; My Little Bakery, 282 St. George St., Duxbury, 781-934-2352, or go to www.wellfleetseasaltcompany.com.