Thursday 13 August 2015

Halen Môn salt. An ocean flows through North Wales

The delicate pyramids of hand made Halen Môn sea salt. Is it better than Maldon? I drove a long way to find out.

"It's so white." Said Etien, speaking not of the salt but the population. It's something he's more likely to notice than me, he being London born and sourdough bread. He was right. It's mainly truculent, old celtic DNA here, pushed back into the acute corners of the country by Caesar. Even for a South Walian like me, it felt very much like another country. They speak funny for a start. And no, I don't mean the Scouse smeared English... I'm talking about the northern variety of Welsh. It sounded like Catalan. I couldn't understand any of it, not even the greetings and niceties that I'm familiar with.

We were walking down the high street of Blaenau Ffestiniog - one of those place names that English people stare at with growing panic, like Dolgellau and Penrhyndeudraeth - looking for somewhere still open to eat. We settled on a sit down fish and chip shop. It wasn't bad. The fish was good, not overcooked, in a crisp batter. I've had better chips but not while sitting next to a co-op supermarket.

Two rather strange American tourists sat close by, hunched heavily over their meals. The woman, who was taller lying down than standing up, asked pointedly what the brown sauce was on her chips.

"Gravy." Explained the fryer, walking over, wiping his hands on a cloth.
"What's in it?"
"Normally meat stock."
"Is this meat stock?" She asked. He paused; the slightest of smiles.
"What's in this?"
"Oh, I've no idea, love." He said, getting up to tend to his deep fat. He laughed lightly. She continued to eat. Etien and I chuckled, and avoided eye contact with the Americans.

Why were we in North Wales? Three reasons. Firstly for ZipWorld: the longest and I guess the most expensive zip wire ride in Europe. I can testify it is a thrill but not nearly as heart rate hiking as the realisation that the minute long ride is costing you about a pound a second. Each.

Secondly for the Halen Môn saltcote, the first to be opened in Wales in hundreds of years. I've been reading about the company and its gourmet salt, used by Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adria, for a few years and they've recently opened a new building, offering tours. They've also just earned an esteemed PDO certification (like Champagne, Parma ham and Stilton) to further enhance their reputation.

And lastly... because I'm Welsh and 48 years old. I've literally circled the world but the fact that I've not explored my own back yard was... maybe not embarrassing but foolish. There is a certain playful hostility between the South and the North of Wales, as with most countries but that didn't influence me. I just needed a reason to visit. North Wales isn't really on the way to anywhere apart from itself. But many people have told me how exhilarating the landscape is, and they were right. 

Almost more fun than a gold, truffle, saffron and caviar priced zip wire ride was the drive up. The roads are excellent; enough turn and torque to keep sleep at bay after five hours of motorway tedium. Outside Llanberis we encountered a little Porsche at play. We tried to follow in our old Saab but it soon disappeared from sight in a smug puff from quadruple exhaust pipes.

North Wales is by turn, Scotland, Cornwall, the Lake District, Iceland and more besides. The scenery is wonderfully variable. The road reveals: wooded groves, dark verdant valleys with misfit streams, and stolid, grey cast, glacial gorges. Then there's the post-industrial: vast lungfuls of rock; of glistening, cracked slate slabs and shale screeds, piled horizontal;  broken from blasted 'galleries' in the land. Mountains from mountains, the dwell of the dragon.

I will be back. Hopefully in a nippy, two seater.

See that Porsche?
The view from the B&B. That lake is part of a hydro power station.
The zip wire is set in a working slate quarry.
I have to mention the B&B. Almost by accident I'd booked the zero carbon Bryn Elltyd guest house on the edge of the Snowdonia National Park. The rooms with turf roofs and reclaimed timber walls were built into the old pig styes, and were delightfully Hobbitty, almost emerging from the land. Inside they were, surprisingly, pretty standard, although the wet room shower was excellent. Nothing ruins a B&B for me faster than a piss-poor shower. What's worse than trying to wash off a hangover with the sensation of being spat at by an asthmatic pixie?

Ceilia's home-baked bread was included in the price, as was a tour of John's boiler.  You'll wonder at the workings of a compressed wood pellet burner. No, I'm not being facetious. Honestly.

Not a Hobbit but a lad from that Lahndahn.
If day one was slate, day two was salt. We crossed the Menai Straits into Anglesey or Ynys Môn as it was until the Vikings renamed it. The Druidic home of the Welsh, It's known as Môn Mam Cymru meaning the Mother of Wales, for its fecundity. It looks like a river runs through it, but it's an ocean: the Atlantic.

Looking at the mainland across the Menai Straits
It's from this fast flowing water that the Anglesey Sea Salt Company take their produce. Fran, our tour guide explained the process which is more complicated than I'd excepted. There's quite a knack to creating crystals of the right size, hardness and brightness(!) for the table. The brine is filtered, sterilised and concentrated and then heated in small shallow pans. The whole process is done by hand. Halen Môn salt crystals develop on the surface of the brine forming snowflake like structures or hollow pyramids. As they grow, they increase in weight and fall to the bottom to be harvested.

Halen Môn in the making
Most salt last saw the sea millions of years ago. Rock salt is dug out and ground to a powder. Anti caking agents are added to ensure smooth flowing. Sea Salt is made from sea water... and nothing else.

If you read this blog, you'll know how often I carp on about my love of Maldon, a sea salt from the East of England. So how does the Welsh stuff compare?

It's more than three times the price for a start. That stings. There's probably a gag there about tears and brine but I'll resist. Like Maldon, this is a 'dressing salt'; to be put on food not in it. Unless you have the wages of the nearby Cheshire football set you won't be actually cooking with this. Apparently Barack Obama likes it sprinkled on his chocolate candies. Saxa table salt, made industrially, costs around £1 a kilo. Maldon is much more expensive at £7 a kilo but Halen Môn is £22! I should point our that we are still in the foothills of the salt price range. Should you wish to pay more, artisan fleur de sel is available for £75 a kilo (plus shipping) but here I think the emperor has left the tailor's and is strolling down the Rue de Sel, the wind whistling through his nethers, gesticulating happily to the poseurs. The cost does reflect the labour intensive process of course but too often I think it also reflects our credulity and eagerness to impress.

Of course it's not only about cost but I'm firmly of the belief that all talk of gourmet salts being 'sweet' or 'minerally' is nonsense. If they are it's because there must be other sweet chemicals or minerals present. Even if they taste that way on the fingertip, that isn't going to be obvious with food. No, what you pay for is not flavour but texture. Maldon does sometimes have tooth breaking shards, maybe that are missed by the more industrial creation process. Halen Môn is a high quality product: delicate, delightful, crunchy and bright(!) but so is Maldon. The Anglesey salt is more so, maybe, but I'm afraid I can't justify a move from my Essex regular. 

Oh bugger. Parsimony is such an unattractive characteristic and utterly at odds with cheffy beneficence. I'm happy to pay for quality. I feel bad ending on a negative, although I suspect the Anglesey Sea Salt Company will thrive even without my support. However, the same company do make another product. Smoked water. Yup. Not a typo. I've bought some and I will be buying more. I'm really rather excited about it. 


  1. Hello, I found your blog via a comment you wrote on Serious Eats and I just wanted to thank you for this post. My wife and I visited England and north Wales (from the US) 11 years ago and visited Blaenau Ffestiniog, Betws-y-Coed, and Anglesey during our time in Wales so thank you for some reminders of a fun holiday.

  2. Glad you liked it Gerry. And pleased that Serious Eats people are finding my blog. An excellent site; always rewarding.

    Perhaps if you're ever in London you could pop in on us?

    Best wishes - Jason