When Russell Bradshaw first sighted the brackish marshlands of Maldon, the British birthplace of the world-renowned sea salt of the same name, he was singularly unimpressed. The thought which crossed his mind was the one that sparks many an entrepreneurial endeavour: ‘Just how hard could this be?’
“It got me, because I’ve been in the food industry my whole life, at many levels, in one way or another,” said Russell. “I was just looking at all that Maldon Sea Salt which is basically in every serious kitchen in the world and I figured, if Maldon can take the world on from that muddy little estuary, then I can have a little go – and that’s why I did it!”
For those who still pass the Saxa of an evening meal, it’s well and truly time to shake it up. Salt has changed, crystallised in fact, into something far more sophisticated. Flaked salts from different regions of the world are sought after for their distinct flavours, Fleur de sel from France for delicate crunchiness, 800-year-old pink Himalayan salt for particular pink colour and flavour, Paska sol from the Croatian island of Pag, known for rich, creamy sweet taste, and of course Maldon and Cornish Sea salt from Britain for flake formation and general all-rounder use as finishing salts. All have artisan origins dating back hundreds, and sometimes thousands of years, before the industrial revolution dramatically reduced the cost of salt by mining it on a large scale.
Salt has always been a precious commodity, and its trade is historically responsible for the placement of cities, of major roads or salt routes between them, even the word salary (as soldiers received an extra payment in salt on top of their wage!) and all because it just makes things taste so darn good — enhancing flavour being the key, not to mention medicinal and preserving qualities of this curious chlorine.
Australian salts are emerging on restaurant tables now – and why not? Salt is essentially sea water, and as all Aussies know our pristine oceans are one of our nation’s great assets – and it’s another thing Russell is passionate about.
“If there’s any less polluted waters on the planet, I don’t know where they are! Here you’ve got 5000 kilometres of basically uninhabited coastline, and the Leeuwin current that runs down and fills the water up with nutrients – this part of the Indian Ocean is as good as anywhere in the world,” he says.
It was several years ago that Russell began experimenting with making his own salt, harvesting water direct from the Indian Ocean. He thought it would be a simple process – after all, it’s just a matter of boiling up sea water, right?
“Of course, it was hard. Much harder than I thought, and it’s taken me years to perfect my method,” he admits, bending to scoop fresh sea water from the ocean at Seabird, one of the beach spots along the Northern Valleys coastline where he hand-collects up to 100 litres at a time. The fresh seawater is added to his well-seasoned drums which he likens to a special brew or kombucha.
“For a long time, I couldn’t get the salinity high enough to make enough salt,” he explains. “You’ve got to keep that level high in the drums – that’s the key.”
After a few months in his special salt drums, which he stores at his Mooliabeenee property, Russell gently warms the salty brine in large steel pans – just the way it’s always been done. And then the magic happens.
“It’s a very pretty thing to see, and I guess when I’m doing it, I never get bored of it because, I don’t know, it’s like a chicken hatching, or your horse having a foal or something – you’re sitting there watching it all just rise up and it turns into this beautiful crystal and then it drops down – it’s just quite an interesting thing to do!”
At the moment Russell’s salt-making is simply a passionate pastime, although he hasn’t had any trouble selling his hand-crafted salt flakes at more than a dozen outlets around Perth where it’s marketed under the brand name Indian Ocean Sea Salt.
“When I pull up stumps and stop working, this is what I’m going to do,” says Russell, confessing his kitchen looks like a mad professor’s laboratory. “I have a million and one prototypes on the go,” he explains. “My ultimate plan is to have a family of salts marketed together.”
Among these product ideas is a jarrah-smoked salt, and infused salts with natural ingredients like chilli, lemon myrtle and rosemary, the challenge being to source everything locally. “I didn’t want to put anything in my products I couldn’t tell a story about,” he says.
Even if you’ve never given a toss about salt before, I urge you to give our local sea salt flakes a try! You can buy Indian Ocean Sea Salt at the Northern Valleys Locavore Store in Bindoon in two sizes, a 250 g tub for $8.00 and a 900 g tub for $25.00 or online at www.nvls.com.au.