Sea salt is all the rage these days, and many products pulled from the ocean hail from the Mediterranean or warm Asian countries such as Thailand.
Lafayette chef Jeremy Conner found sea salt closer to home in the vast Gulf of Mexico and is harvesting the sodium chloride crystals for sale in his new venture, Cellar Salt Co.
Conner grew up in Pensacola, Florida, and still has family at the Gulfside town, so he makes the trek to the Florida Panhandle to pull water for his salt. Tapping 9 to 16 five-gallon buckets at a time from the Gulf — about 100 pounds of water — results in 2.5 pounds of salt once the water evaporates, Conner said.
He chose Pensacola because Louisiana’s coastal waters contain too much river runoff, which muddies the water. Tapping out of one area provides a constant salinity and flavor, he added, which is why he focuses on Pensacola.
“And we have relatives there,” piped his daughter, Cecile Conner.
“The different coastal areas around the world will yield different salt products,” Jeremy Conner explained. “We definitely wanted to end up with a product that was true to the place.”
Conner pulls water just before high tide, when the Gulf waters contain the most salt and the least amount of pollutants due to the waters flowing inland.
He heats the water in giant aluminum pots on an industrial stove at Bread & Circus Provisions in Lafayette, then brings home the evaporated residue for further processing.
The final product is then packaged and sold Saturdays at the Lafayette Market at the Horse Farm, Bread & Circus, Kiki in River Ranch, Dark Roux, The Kitchenary and Champagne’s Market and online through Squareup.com.
Conner is in the process of branching out distribution so the salt will soon be at Reve Coffee Roasters in downtown Lafayette and E’s Kitchen in Parc Lafayette.
Conner got the idea of making his own sea salt after watching another chef prepare a seafood dish in seawater.
“I thought, ‘I could do that,’ ” he said.
He brought back Pensacola water and began experimenting. At first, he placed seawater into a dehydrator for two days.
“What was left was loosely formed ugly salt,” Conner said.
Sea salt, like refined salt harvested from ground deposits, is mostly made up of sodium chloride with trace minerals. Refined salt removes the minerals but sea salt boasts of containing them.
Too much of the minerals, however, leaves a bad aftertaste, Conner said, so he worked to find ways to gain a flavorful balance.
Now, he boils the water specifically in aluminum (stainless steel rusts in the process), then turns off the heat and lets the water cool, straining off excess water.
“We’re left with a solution that’s high sodium and very palatable,” Conner explained.
The leftovers fit into a warming pan that can be brought home.
“The water continues to evaporate but at a different rate,” Conner said. “The salt crystallizes only on the surface of that water.”
As the crystallization process happens, the flakes grow into pyramid shapes and the larger ones drop to the bottom.
“They won’t grow anymore but they won’t dissolve either because the water is too concentrated,” he said.
Conner scoops out the salt flakes, places them in a dehydrator and then a sieve.
“We can do it in a day,” Conner said of the entire process.
The leftover water is returned to the ocean and the “ugly salt crystals” that don’t go into the product are used at home.
Currently, Conner sells a standard sea salt to customers, but he has plans for flavored salt in the future.
He’s experimented with a smoked salt using oak and pecan wood and a salt accented by a concentrated flavor such as juiced elderberries.
“We definitely want to do at least one citrus,” he added.
Conner hopes to initiate a Kickstarter campaign soon to help finance expanding his company.
“We’d like to have those flavors to offer a holiday set,” he said. “And we need the funds from a Kickstarter to make that happen.”
In addition to creating sea salt, Conner hosts regular pop-up dinners called Humble Fish, designed to not only serve regional dishes but explain their origins.
Conner will also be one of the chefs participating in the Savoring the South dinner at the James Beard Foundation in December in New York. No doubt his contribution will own a unique flavor hailing from the Gulf.
Editor’s note: This article was changed on Tuesday, Oct. 13, to correct the the last name spelling of Jeremy and Cecile Conner.