Salt Life

By Molly Birnbaum & Dan Souza

Andrew Bushell has been making sea salt for seven years. For an entrepreneur and small business owner, that’s nothing to scoff at. But it is nothing, he says.

Father Andrew is a Roman Orthodox Catholic monk. He learned to make salt while living, working, and praying at Vatopaidi Monastery on Mount Athos in Greece. “There, we’ve been making salt for 1,651 years.”

“It is the same salt that the Roman Emperors in Constantinople used to eat,” he says. “It was given to them by my brotherhood as part of a tribute every year. It’s a very old thing.”

Father Andrew, who wears rimless glasses and a long salt-and-pepper beard, wasn’t thinking about salt in 2010. That’s when he moved back to Marblehead, Massachusetts, where he grew up, to found a monastery. There was just one problem. He didn’t know how he was going to pay for anything.

The monastic custom, he explained, is to not take any money from the collection plate. A monk is a man with two jobs: to be a cleric and to pay his own way. This is why Dom Pérignon had his Champagne and the Trappists have their jams, jellies, and beer.

One afternoon, soon after returning to the United States, Father Andrew sat on a bench in Fort Sewall park, overlooking the water in Marblehead Harbor. He felt lost. He said prayers. “I was crying—tasting my tears—and I looked at the ocean, and I thought, We could make our salt here.”

He started by borrowing 5-gallon buckets from a nearby Greek restaurant, manually filling them with salt water, and transporting them back to his house in his 27-year-old Volvo station wagon. Today, Father Andrew uses a marine pump to fill a large tank sitting in the back of his dual-rear-wheel pickup truck, which he then empties into two 750-gallon tanks next to his saltern, a small garage-like building where he make his salt. And he doesn’t use just any water. Father Andrew gathers ocean water from anywhere between 14 and 20 different spots off of the rocky coast of Marblehead (all secret), blending them to make each batch of his high-end sea salt. This combination creates the best mineral signature, he says.

To figure out exactly where to get the seawater, Father Andrew tasted water from hundreds of different locations, tracking changes in flavor over time and temperature and season, all of which affect the mineral content of the ocean, he says. If there is a vein of copper or iron somewhere in the seabed floor, that will affect the flavor of the water around it. And that mineral-rich plume of water will move. It will meander. “And that’s part of the trick,” he says. Choosing the best water “requires tasting, trigonometry, and mostly patience.”

Father Andrew’s finished salt is clumpy and moist, with a flavor that changes depending not only on the water collection spot but also on the season. He says that in the summer, when the water is rich with phytoplankton, his salt has a rounder, more complex flavor. In the colder months, it is cleaner. (Father Andrew stops making his salt in the dead of winter due to both the danger of extracting water from freezing, tumultuous seas and the added expense of trying to boil seawater when the outside air temperature drops too low.)

When new customers taste his salt for the first time, Father Andrew says, they are usually “shocked” by the flavor. Shawn Cooney, owner of Corner Stalk Farm, sells hydroponic lettuces at the Boston Public Market, along with one salt: Marblehead Salt Company’s. “We did a taste test of the other salts made in New England, and decided that his stuff was better,” explains Cooney. “It’s that ocean-y flavor profile that it has. The minerality of it. When you put it on something, it just made it taste good. That was the kicker.”

Father Andrew knew something about salt, the only member of the rock family regularly eaten by humans, and an ingredient so common most might assume that it barely needs any consideration. He knew that it could be a dynamic and complex ingredient.

It’s true. And after meeting Father Andrew we—executive editors Molly Birnbaum and Dan Souza—began to dig into the subject, and quickly became obsessed. There are dozens of different types of salt out there. Where do they come from? How are they made? Are they really all that different? When it comes to cooking, does it really matter which salt you use? We set out to demystify this staple ingredient.