Hope Schwartz-Leeper and Zak Fagiano make sea salt for a living. They're also seniors at Skidmore College, where they won a business plan competition last year. That's how they started Wellfleet Sea Salt Company.
The idea was simple: make salt without gas, motors, or electricity. Just sunshine, water, manpower, and a little bit of wood and plastic. They knew they couldn't afford to buy land, so they built two floating greenhouses using repurposed oyster barges. They bought a row boat and picked up a few food grade five gallon buckets. They stocked up on parchment paper and grabbed an empty wine bottle, and they were ready to get started.
Here's how it works. Hope and Zak row out to the barges, which are anchored in Cape Cod Bay. The go in their rowboat, five gallon buckets in tow. The barge greenhouses are lined with food grade plastic that goes about two inches up on all four sides, where the water is held. They use the buckets to fill up the barge, which is 160 square feet. They row home.
In the summer they have to wait about a week, in the winter a month. The water evaporates, leaving quarter-inch square crystals. They row back out. They scrape the salt off the plastic and bring it back to land, where they spread it out on food grade plastic trays. If it doesn't seem quite dry enough, they put it in a small greenhouse to dry a bit longer. As Hope explains, they like their salt to retain about three percent moisture. Any more than that and the bottom could turn to mush after a customer buys it, which nobody wants.
When the salt is dried to their standards, they lay parchment paper over the trays and roll a wine bottle over it. This is their grinding method. Zak says they tried all sorts of other grinding methods, but the simplest one worked best. The process yields a fine crystal—not a flake, but a crystal with crunch—that works both as a finishing salt and as a salt to use in cooking.
Before they started selling the salt, they got it tested. They found out it was full of magnesium and calcium, not surprising, since seawater has plenty of both. Interestingly, though, magnesium and calcium are two things most Americans (an estimated 75 percent) don't get enough of in our diets. Some studies have linked deficiencies to diseases like obesity and heart disease.
Which leads us to dark chocolate custard with sea salt. Clearly, we need more of this stuff. I tried this recipe after talking with Zak and Hope, not only because it is a delicious way to use their salt, but also because chocolate, too, is full of magnesium, and half and half has plenty of calcium. I don't want to take any chances.
You can learn more about what Zak and Hope are up to on their website and blog, which is also a good place to find their salt.
DARK CHOCOLATE CUSTARD WITH WELLFLEET SEA SALT
This recipe is very simple. Alex says it was a little too "dark chocolate" for him, so if you prefer milk chocolate, you might want to try making it with a lighter bar. Personally, I love dark chocolate, and it pairs perfectly with Wellfleet sea salt.
3/4 cup half and half
2.5 ounces dark chocolate (I used 72%)
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
2 egg yolks
a pinch of sea salt, plus more for finishing
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
optional: whipped cream
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F. Bring the half and half to a bare simmer in a small heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Turn the heat off and stir in the chocolate and sugar until both are completely dissolved. Set aside for two minutes.
Meanwhile, whisk together the egg yolks, salt, and vanilla in a small bowl. Add the half and half mixture slowly, stirring constantly. Pour the mixture into two custard bowls (oven proof!) and bake in a water bath for about 30 minutes, or until the custards set. Chill for at least 2 hours, then serve with whipped cream and a sprinkling of sea salt.