As you travel through Iceland’s Westfjords, it seems as though almost every turn presents awe-inspiring scenery. The sheer drop-off of the roads to the ocean, the mountain passes, and deep fjords make for a stunning drive, albeit with some white-knuckle moments! This is not exactly where you would expect there to be a gourmet salt producer.
Saltverk is perched at the tip of the thin Reykjanes Peninsula between two fjords in an unassuming building. However, the billowing steam is a giveaway. Inside, seawater is slowly being evaporated using geothermal energy that is found just steps away, outside. Their entire process of production is sustainable and has no carbon footprint.
While Saltverk’s diverse offering reflects today’s gourmet tastes, the history of producing sea salt in this area dates back to the 1770s. The Danish king established salt making in Reykjanes that operated until the devastating Laki Crater eruption of 1783. At the time, salt was as precious as gold, and salt makers were forbidden from marrying—let alone have children—so they could concentrate on their valuable work. Salt was essential for preserving food—especially fish—and crucial for this remote Danish colony to transport valuable commodities back to mainland European markets.
When Björn Steinar Jónsson was wrapping up his engineering degree in Denmark, he knew he wanted to return to Iceland to focus on sustainability work. In 2012 he founded Saltverk, inspired by the quality ingredients used in the food scene in Copenhagen. He knew about the geothermal activity in the area and was familiar with the clean waters of the remote inner Ísafjörður fjord.
Saltverk is Iceland’s only salt producer. Its operations are fully sustainable with zero carbon emissions, thanks to the geothermal resources in the area.
Besides using geothermal energy and stainless-steel equipment, much of Saltverk’s processes are strikingly similar to those used to produce sea salt a thousand years ago. The work is labor and energy-intensive. A tremendous amount of water needs to be boiled to produce the flakey, mineral-rich salts. Seawater is naturally 3.5% salt. Saltverk pumps in the nearby seawater and slowly evaporates it using geothermal heat until it reaches 20% salinity. The salty brine is boiled until the salt crystallizes, and the flakes fall to the bottom of the pan. The process requires constant stirring with a long-handled stainless steel sieve shovel that collects the flakes but lets the water pass through. The salt flakes are scooped out and placed in large trays to dry in ovens for 12 hours. The entire process takes seven to ten days, with each harvest yielding between 100-200 kg (220–440 lbs.) of salt.
While this handmade salt delicacy commands a price premium—up to 30 times more expensive than plain table salt—you know you are tasting something special. In stark contrast to plain salts, Saltverk’s sea salt is minimally processed, and it does not hide its complex mineral taste born from the waters of the North Atlantic. Chefs throughout Europe and North America embrace Saltverk’s products to enhance the taste and presentation of their meals. Along with their traditional flake salt, the company offers seasoned salts that add unique flavor and visual appeal, such as seaweed salt, wild Icelandic thyme salt, birch smoked salt, and black lava salt that are very popular souvenirs.
While salt making in Iceland will never be a large industry, the future of sustainable salt making in remote Iceland looks bright. Thankfully the lives of salt makers are not as austere as 300 years ago!
This article was originally published by Green by Iceland.