EATING FOR BRITAIN: THE SALT OF THE EARTH ON ANGLESEY
I am spending a great deal of time in my new, er old car right now. I have clocked up over four thousand miles in the last few weeks with treks through Scotland, Northumbria, Yorkshire and now, Wales.
Apart from the plummy and slightly disapproving tones of my Tom Tom sat nav “oh do please turn around and go the way I told you to go” I have been enjoying the silence and the chance to think. With only the obligatory hour listening to Woman’s Hour on Radio Four, I have taken the opportunity to work out the story and structure of EATING FOR BRITAIN in my head.
Well, of course it’s going to be about the food, both in terms of the dishes themselves and the relationship of each region with their produce, but more than anything I am becoming convinced, it is about the people. Now, that should not have come as any great surprise to me given that I reached very much the same conclusion with EAT MY GLOBE, but there is something about the people I have encountered on the journey around the U.K so far, that I am convinced would make a fine backbone for the rest of the information to hang upon.
Nowhere has that proved more obvious than my visit over the last two days to the Isle of Anglesey and Halen Mon, The Anglesey Sea Salt Company, where not only did the owners, David and Alison Lea-Wilson, agree to meet me and show me what they do for a living, they also offered a complete stranger a room for the night in their stunning home.
I arrived exhausted after a four hour drive from Monmouthshire to find the house empty but open and a text on my phone telling me to make myself at home until they returned from taking their dog to the vet. A few minutes later, David and Alison came bounding through the door with two Jack Russell terriers scampering in behind them.
Almost before I had chance to deposit my bags in one of their comfortable guest rooms, Alison had a cup of tea in my hand and David was putting his coat back on and finding a torch to go rooting around for vegetables in the walled garden to the side of their house. I joined him, despite the howling wind and sheeting rain and we soon returned with a basket full of lambs lettuce and kale, which Alison served with supper.
Few things beat a home cooked meal when you are on the road and as soon as David plopped the cork from a bottle of Claret and Alison brought out a plate of locally caught and smoked sprats to snack on, I knew that they were going to be my kind of people. A thought compounded when the main course arrived in the form of a stew of lamb shanks with root vegetables, which had been cooking slowly in the Aga all day. With a large slice of treacle tart to finish and a glass of good port to wash the last crumbs down, it was little wonder that I had to retire to bed and fell asleep the moment my head hit the pillow.
But, hugely enjoyable as all of this had been, I was here for a reason and that reason was salt. Halen Mon, literally means Anglesey Salt and David and Alison have been producing one of the finest salts in the world for nearly thirteen years and supplying it to some of the best restaurants including The Fat Duck and El Bulli.
Given its success, it is surprising to find that the notion of producing salt came about as a result of a downturn in their original business, a local Sea aquarium, which had given them a licence to use local sea water obviously a constant supply of raw material. After a few years of trial and error and much research on David’s part, they ended up with a process, which produces a startlingly pure salt with flaked crystals and a beautifully clean taste.
Their facility is small, but well organised and the water is piped straight from the sea, in the shadows of the Snowdonia mountain range, filtered and then concentrated to increase the saline content. This being Wales there is, of course, barely enough Sun shine to power a small light bulb let alone dry the salt. So, the water is heated gently until the salt crystals begin to form and they are then removed from the solution, drained, rinsed gently and then dried to around 3% moisture. It is a simple process, but one that is handled with extreme precision by the small team of salt makers there whose pride in the finished product is tangible.
They have every right to be proud, this is a hand crafted product which requires constant care and attention to get the standards David demands and the flavour was apparent even to my jaded palate when we did a tasting later in the morning.
If David is the boffin and the innovator, Alison is the key to the salt’s sales success getting the product sampled by chefs, stocked on the shelves of supermarkets (the Angelsey Sea Salt in M&S is theirs) and even used by manufacturers of crisps. But they are still keen to do more and they plied me with samples, which I promised to “tart” around on their behalf.
By early afternoon, it was time for me to head off on the four hour drive back to the location of my next meeting, but not before Alison had fed me one more meal of local black pudding, eggs from the derrieres of the three hens strutting around in their garden and some good local bacon. Enough to ensure I did not need supper tonight.
They came out of the house to wave goodbye and, as I took one last look at them in the rear view mirror as they disappeared back into the house, the two dogs following close behind as ever, I knew that if EATING FOR BRITAIN was going to be about anything, it was about people, people like David and Alison.