Who could have guessed that Scotland would ever have not one but two gourmet sea salt brands to rival the big shakes from Maldon, Anglesey and Cornwall?
The first, Hebridean Sea Salt, was launched in 2012 by Natalie Crayton, a young marine biology graduate from Aberdeen University. Hand-harvested in small batches after straining, heat-drying in salt pans, and washing in brine to shine the crystals, the range has been expanded to include peat-smoked and seaweed-infused. It's now selling to about 250 stockists all over the UK and is used by many of Scotland's top chefs. It will be launching in 400 Co-op stores this month, with another three supermarkets and an online retailer in the pipeline. A new state-of-the-art sea salt plant is to be built to meet growing demand.
Now, on the other side of the Minch, the beautifully packaged, environmentally friendly Isle of Skye Sea Salt Company has sprung up as the first such producer on the island for 300 years. Nanette Muir (originally from Paisley but a Skye resident for 20 years) uses sea water from Loch Snizort; the last time it was tried in the 1700s they used water from Loch Duart. Launched in autumn last year, it's been taken by Daylesford Organics in Gloucestershire and is due to become available in delis and farm shops throughout Scotland from this month. Because it's dried naturally by the wind and sun, production is always going to be seasonal and therefore the product will remain high-end and artisan, with restricted mainland distribution.
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Isle of Skye Sea Salt is a finalist in this year's Scotland Food & Drink Excellence Awards in May, and hopes to follow Hebridean's runaway success in the same awards last year. Membership of the government-supported organisation behind the awards can help small food business start-ups in remote areas like these to gain business advice, network, and find buyers distributors. Without it there would be fewer people daring to dream: there are several other new companies and new brands competing for awards this year, including Hello Chocolate! of Dunfermline, hot pepper sauce by Island Girl of the Borders and sweet and savoury biscuits by Angelic Gluten Free of Inverness (following Pulsetta of Aberdeen's success in previous years). At the same time, the more established brands are developing new products and flavours, such as Summer Harvest's new truffle-infused rapeseed oil, Scotty Brand bacon; MacSween's three-bird haggis; Nairns gluten-free chocolate biscuits; and Shetland Cheese's St Ninians.
Nanette Muir and her business partner didn't realise they were embarking on such a steep learning curve to get their product to market. I wish them luck. Scotland was once the major supplier of salt in Britain, and the shoreline of the Firth of Forth is liberally sprinkled with names such as Prestonpans and Grangepans. Salt pans have been identified off Orkney and at Brora in Sutherland. And of course Saltcoats on the Ayrshire coast is so named because of its importance in salt production.
It looks like Scottish sea salt crystals, large and small, are once again becoming very rock and roll.