As part of our series on the eight Welsh Protected Landscapes, Paul Bloomfield visits Anglesey's food market and Halen Môn that produces world-class sea salt
Like a pirate captain flinging open a chest of loot, David lifts the lid on a barrel to reveal the treasure within: a mound of glistening white crystals, like the freshest powder snow on a crisp winter's day. And treasure it is, of sorts: salt, in antiquity as valuable as gold. Roads were built just to transport it. Salt led to the collapse of empires. Even the word 'salary' is derived from its Latin name – Roman soldiers who didn't earn their ration were not 'worth their salt'.
And this salt is more valuable than most. Halen Môn, the Anglesey Sea Salt Company, has been producing arguably the world’s finest for over 15 years, refining the brine from the pristine waters of the Menai Strait and harvesting the crystals by hand. David Lea-Wilson, co-founder (with his wife, Alison) of Halen Môn, is showing me the ropes – or, rather, the pipes, tanks and evaporators – of the operation in the company's new, eco-friendly saltcote on the south-east coast of Anglesey, opposite Caernarfon Castle and with views of Snowdon in the distant east.
In fact, the work starts out in the Menai Strait – and molluscs do it. Mussels, to be precise: huge banks of mussels, which filter the water swept up from the Atlantic past Wales by the Gulf Stream, making it incredibly pure.
Each day, 20,000 litres of that clear seawater is pumped into the saltcote where, over a period of nearly two weeks, it's filtered, warmed in an vacuum evaporator to increase salinity, blended to the right level of saltiness, and transferred into shallow tanks. In these heated vessels salt crystals slowly form on the surface of the water then sink to the bottom, from where they're harvested each day.
"It looks simple," David says as we watch Keith gently shovelling crystals from the tanks into shallow trays. "But it's quite an art: each harvester undergoes four months of training to learn the techniques." The crystals are then washed (in super-saturated brine), sieved and sorted, blended or smoked before being packed and sent to customers around the world. It’s an updated version of the process that was followed for centuries on the Anglesey coast till the late 18th century.
If you think salt is just salt, think again. The table salt we take for granted is industrially produced and treated with anti-caking agents, while rock salt is mined or forced from underground reserves under high pressure. This sea-sourced organic beauty, though, is lovingly crafted and could come only from here; indeed, it's been awarded European protected designation of origin status, like Champagne or Parma ham. It all stems from the passion – well, obsession, really – that David has for salt. Before launching Halen Môn, he travelled France, Africa, the South Pacific and Japan to research salt-making; no wonder he's particular about his product.
"We harvest each morning without fail between 6am and 9am," he tells me. "Too early and there's too much calcium in it; leave it too late and the flavour will be bitter from excess magnesium. Experts say our salt is slightly sweet, which is why it's prized by chefs, chocolate-makers and of course cooks at home."
Outside the ultra-clean harvesting room, David takes me to the tasting area and picks out a single crystal to show me: a perfect square, slightly pyramidal, a centimetre across. "This is what we're after, and what chefs prize: slow-formed and flakey," he smiles. "If the crystals look right, they taste right." No wonder top restaurateurs buy individual crystals as garnish. Even Barack Obama enjoys Halen Môn salt on his chocolate: "From the farm house to the White House," David grins, recalling his early experiments with a saucepan and the family Aga stove.
The island's gastronomic delights don't finish with salt, though. In past times Anglesey was known as Môn Mam Cymru – Mother of Wales – in recognition of its agricultural productivity, and today there's a resurgence among small food producers. By serendipity, I've visited on the third Saturday of the month, when Anglesey Farmers Market sets up in nearby Menai Bridge. Alison, co-founder of Halen Môn, introduces me to some of the stallholders.
There's Mrs Teague's Emporium, where Ginny tidies rows of handmade chocolates, fruit syrups and pies, Ebon Ac Eifiori fudge in a dozen flavours, and tubs of sinful puddings – chocolate, lemon melt, crumble and more – stacked in neat ranks at the Wooden Spoon.
Butcher's chill cabinets are stocked with tempting sausages from Pedigree Welsh pigs, and beautifully marbled steaks from Welsh black beef cows. Edwina's Eggs include those from free-range ducks and hens, while moist bricks of bara brith – delicious traditional Welsh fruit loaf – sit alongside rich chocolate tiffin at Gwenda's Pantri Bach, and a couple of dozen flavours of chutneys at the Celtic Kitchen, where I succumb to Pat's crumbly Welsh cakes.
I mingle with regulars trading pleasantries in Welsh, and visitors sampling Adamson's hazelnut liqueur, Petros olives and, of course, Halen Môn salt products, from salted caramel sauce to smoked water – perfect for pimping cheap whisky, Alison tells me. But then I'm inclined to take whatever she says with a pinch of Anglesey salt – after all, it's probably the best in the world.
Join a tour of Ty Halen Saltcote and Visitor Centre to discover how sea salt is made (01248 430871, halenmon.com)
Anglesey Farmers Market is held on the third Saturday of the month; the website lists producers with stalls at the market (angleseyfarmersmarket.co.uk). Look out for summer Food Slams organised by the market, with gazebos, hot food and music.
This article was written by Paul Bloomfield