Article from the Guardian (NO – I don’t read that rubbish) written by Rachel Cooke
Four months ago, officials from Food Standards Scotland arrived at the Lewis home of Natalie Crayton, the owner of the Hebridean Sea Salt Company, apparently acting on a tip-off from a former employee. Soon afterwards, these same officials first confiscated the salt at her premises near Loch Erisort, and then demanded that she contact her stockists, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s among them, and get their supplies recalled, pronto. According to the FSS, Hebridean Sea Salt was not, as its label suggested, made only from crystals harvested from evaporating sea water: last month, as its investigation continued, it revealed that more than 80% of it was imported table salt.
In the press, Crayton, a graduate of marine biology who started her business in 2012, mounted a defence of her seeming deception, claiming that she’d merely used a process known as “seeding”, during which small amounts of foreign crystals are added to the sea water in order to speed the drying process; this, she insisted, is a practice commonly used by leading brands. She also accused FSS of bullying her over what was really only a “labelling issue”. But it was no good. For one thing, her business had already ceased trading. For another, it isn’t true that companies such as Maldon Sea Salt or Halen Môn, on Anglesey, bulk up their products in this manner; following the revelations, Isle of Skye Sea Salt, which now finds itself Scotland’s only artisan salt producer, even took the trouble to write to its customers to remind them that its crystals are 100% Scottish and absolutely the real thing.
I’ve no sympathy for Crayton. But still, this story, which might have come straight from a satirical novel, has its comic side. I always wondered how it was that producers of salt, Crayton’s company among them, had come to be awarded, among other accolades, Great Taste Awards by the Guild of Fine Food (in 2016, Cornish Sea Salt and Saltverk, a “hand harvested” sea salt from the Westfjords of Iceland, were both recipients). What criteria are involved in such decisions? Even if you accept that natural flakes from the sea are less harsh than good old industrialised Saxa, I’m still not sure there’s much to choose between brands. Doesn’t salt mostly taste, well, salty, however noble its provenance? The demise of Hebridean Sea Salt would seem to prove this. Last year, it was a gourmet product, beloved of top chefs such as Andrew Fairlie and Mark Greenaway (the latter even mentioned it in his award-winning cookbook). This year, it’s an embarrassment, irrespective of its (bitter? briney? brackish?) taste.
When did the British middle classes go loopy for posh salt? I began using Maldon about 10 years ago, mostly because the flakes look pretty in the little black soap stone bowl my sister-in-law gave me for Christmas (though I do like its crunch on bread and butter). Mine, however, is only a mild affectation compared to the habits of some. Look at one supermarket delivery website – OK, it’s Ocado – and you’ll find no fewer than a dozen kinds of salt flakes, from own brand at 19p per 100g to Halen Môn which comes in at an amazing £13.50 per 100g should you buy it in a glass jar that comes with a tiny spoon (in a plastic packet, it’s a veritable bargain at £3.75 per 100g). Some flakes are black (Cyprus), and others a rosy pink (the Himalayas). One brand, which are blue, are described as “Persian”, though before you start dreaming of Esfahan, the country of origin is Pakistan.
Eyes closed, would anyone really be able to tell one of these from another? And even if they could – though I struggle to imagine what adjectives they would use to describe such differences – would this matter in any substantive way? I can’t believe the answer to either of these questions is “yes”, which means that what this comes down to ultimately is snobbery and display and a certain last-days-of-disco decadence that I can’t really get my head around in a world of rapidly rising food prices. Will there be a backlash? Probably not. People are bonkers. Still, on the plus side, perhaps this does have its positive aspect. Might it mean we’re finally coming to understand that salt is the single most important and transformative ingredient of them all? That we would rather, these days, scatter it in considered manner than cosh all that lies in its path with a hefty pour from the cellar, as my grandparents used to do? If so, frauds and naked rip-offs excepted, I guess I’m all for it.