As you travel through Iceland's Westfjords, it seems as though almost every turn presents jaw-dropping scenery. The sheer drop-off of the ocean roads, the mountain passes, and deep fjords make for a stunning drive, albeit with some white-knuckle moments! The setting is not the place where you would expect to find a gourmet salt producer.
Saltverk is perched at the tip of the thin Reykjanes Peninsula between two fjords in an unassuming building. It's the billowing steam that is a giveaway. Inside, seawater slowly evaporates using geothermal energy from a source just a stone's throw away outside.
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 volcano eruption of 1783. At the time, salt was as precious as gold, and salt makers were forbidden from marrying—let alone having children—so they could concentrate on their invaluable work. Salt was essential for preserving food—especially fish—and crucial for this remote Danish colony to transport precious 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. Seawater is naturally 3.5% salt, so a tremendous amount of water must evaporate to make the flakey, mineral-rich salts. Saltverk pumps in the nearby seawater and slowly boils it using geothermal heat until it reaches 20% salinity. After boiling, the salty brine 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 table salt—you know you are tasting something special. In stark contrast to plain table salt, Saltverk's sea salt is minimally processed. It does not hide its complex mineral taste from the waters of the North Atlantic. Chefs throughout Europe and North America have noted this and 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 decoration, such as seaweed salt, wild Icelandic thyme salt, birch smoked salt, and black lava salt that are 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!
For more on Saltverk see Green by Iceland