Viking Seawater Makes the Perfect Salt

In dark, remote, frigid Iceland, one salt maker is reviving a tradition that dates back to the 18th century.

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Dec 16 2014, 10:06pm

The word "remote" might have been invented to describe Iceland's Westfjords. The coastline of this massive swath of land twists and heaves in savage Arctic waves that have carved out fjords as imposing as they are magnificent. Flocks of seabirds tend to their eggs in cliff crevices that whistle in a punishing wind. Snow barely has a chance to melt in the brief, albeit blue sky of summer, before winter flash-freezes everything once more, resulting in towering snow dunes that cut some parts of the region completely off from the mainland.

It was here that Bjorn Steinar Jonsson decided to forego a successful career as an engineer in order to make salt.

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Bjorn Steinar Jonsson

It wasn't a fool's errand that inspired Jonsson to open his company, Saltverk, in the town of Reykjanes on the northern edge of the Westfjords nearly four years ago. At first, though, even Bjorn questioned why he traded in job security to become a salt maker.

"That first winter was really challenging," he says. "The sun never rose and as I pumped in seawater day after frigid day in total darkness, I wondered if I'd lost my mind. The silence and isolation gave me too much time to think about why I made this decision."

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Geothermal water pool.

But even on the darkest winter day, Bjorn also suspected that he might be onto something. Perhaps the ghosts from the past urged him on, whispering to him to forge ahead with his dream.

This wasn't the first time salt had been made here. Bjorn sources pristine Icelandic seawater from the shores surrounding him, before dehydrating it using geothermal water and energy. The seawater is pumped into a huge dehydrating pan that's positioned above geyser water that maintains a steady temperature of 206 degrees Fahrenheit. The seawater is boiled until milky white crystals form on the surface of the brine, then eventually settle at the bottom of the pan. The crystals are collected and transferred to wooden racks that are stacked in a dehydrating room until the salt is completely dry. Since the process employs nothing but geothermal water and energy, it has zero carbon footprint and is one hundred percent sustainable.

The resulting salt crystals are winter white, large flakes as immaculate as the environment from which they are born. They look just as they would have hundreds of years ago, when the Danes who colonized Iceland sent saltmakers to Reykjanes in the 18th century to make salt in the exact same way that Bjorn makes it today.

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The Danes have long used the salt to make bacalao with Icelandic cod. Traditionally referred to as saltfiskur by older generations of Icelanders, bacalao is one of Iceland's most lucrative exports. The Danish king pilfered Icelandic resources for his own nation's profit, as colonizers tend to do, and Icelanders did not benefit from the salt produced in a cloud of geothermal steam.

After many years, Iceland's salt making tradition eventually died, a fragment of history relegated to a past that many Icelanders would like to consign to oblivion. Freedom from the Danes was a weary struggle, and the salt making custom of Reykjanes—with its unsavory ties to Denmark—became a victim of Icelandic liberation.

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But when a food tradition dies, it's not necessarily lost forever.

Bjorn discovered the story of the Westfjord salt makers in the national archives a few years ago, and it was enough to inspire him to give up everything to champion salt's return.

I've visited Saltverk several times over the past few years. Today, the salt that Bjorn worried would never find its way to Icelandic tables makes regular appearances of supermarket shelves, restaurant kitchens, and home pantries throughout the nation.

The last time I was at Saltverk, I met a thin saltmaker with a wiry silver beard that tumbled down his chest. As he loaded a tray of incandescent salt flakes onto a dehydrator rack, he told me that he also moonlights as a Viking in historical reenactments between his salt-making stints.

"I love each job," he said, "because they are both concerned with preserving Icelandic traditions that would be lost without a diligent effort to remember them."