MASTERS OF THEIR CRAFT: How one of the world's most vital ingredients went from top chefs to everyone's table

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Alex Olsson (centre) with Charlie Costelloe of Pialligo Estate Smokehouse and The Bridge Room chef Ross Lusted.

When people think of the forces that shaped the face of humanity around the planet, the talk turns to military might, shipping, industrial power, mineral resources and great political leaders.

But top of the list should be salt. The fortunes of empires have risen and fallen because of what Homer called a “divine substance”.

Modern France is partly the result of a salt tax that so alarmed the populace it helped provoke the French revolution. And it’s said thousands of Napoleon’s troops died during the retreat from 1812’s Russian campaign because a lack of salt meant their wounds did not heal.

When the British attempted to subjugate its colonial outpost of India by banning Indians from collecting or selling salt, forcing them to buy it from the British monopoly, a 60-year-old Mahatma Gandhi devised “satyagraha”, his campaign of civil disobedience. That led to the Salt March, a 400km protest walk to the Arabian Sea coast which saw 60,000 people arrested, including Gandhi.

Salt taxes funded the rise of the British empire, with thousands locked up for smuggling salt along the way.

American writer Mark Kurlansky’s biography of this everyday item, “Salt: A World History”, argues that salt shaped civilisation, becoming so economically important it was currency, shaping trade routes, cities and empires and provoking and financing wars. Salt cakes were money in ancient Ethiopia and Tibet.

Salt was a crucial preservative before refrigeration and in the early 20th century, a link between salt domes and oil led to a black gold rush based around the hunt for salt domes.

It’s the ingredient that helped hunter-gathers transform into farmers. The most important use for salt in the world today is in livestock agriculture, with salt licks providing essential salts and minerals for animals.

Kurlansky also likes to point out that in Haiti, salt cures a zombie.

While common, salt has been economically, politically and culturally important for thousands of years, with more than 14,000 known uses according to Alex Olsson, of Olsson’s, Australia’s oldest family-owned producer of sea salt.

Charles and Alex Olsson

Olsson’s Sea Salt is used in many of Australia’s top restaurants and there’s a wry synergy in enjoying a steak in a three-hat restaurant such as Sydney’s The Bridge Room and thinking that Olsson’s may have supplied the salt products that helped the farmers produce the beef alongside the seasoning chef Ross Lusted puts on his tables.

The Olsson’s story dates back to 1948 when Norman, the son a Swedish immigrant, and his two sons, Charles and Malcolm, began producing supplements for graziers as a five-year drought gripped the land. Pressed salt blocks are like a pill for sheep and cattle, which can be used to deliver other vital nutrients.

In 1957 the Olssons bought Pacific Salt in Warooka, on South Australia’s Yorke Peninsula and 11 years later, took over BHP’s lease on the Eyre Peninsula, north of Whyalla.

Today, their salt pans near Whyalla and Queensland’s Port Alma, near Rockhampton, have a water quality and mineral richness that helped cement the company’s reputation as the country’s finest salt producer. As Alex Olsson explains, just three ingredients go into producing their product: sea water, sunshine and wind.

Solar evaporation is used to create the salt crystals. The water starts out as 100 acre primary ponds, which reduces to brine which is then moved into crystalliser ponds where the salt begins to “drop” out of the water, forming a layer on top. That layer is then harvested, dried and packaged.

The process takes on average 8-10 months, and the Eyre Peninsula has a minimum of 300 days of sunshine annually.

Incidentally, the water turns orange and then pink as it evaporates due to the presence of beta carotene and an abundance of brine shrimp – you may remember them from childhood as “Sea Monkeys”.

One of the Olsson’s salt brine in South Australia.

While Olsson’s produces more than 60 types of salt feeds for farms and is the market leader in that category, in recent years, Charles’ daughter Alex has enlisted her training in Swiss hotel schools to refine her craft for the table.

She admits “it took me a little while to find my feet” after she joined the company in 1997, but in 2012, she launched the company’s sea salt flakes, which can be found in top restaurants around Australia, from Quay to Bennelong, Firedoor, Aria, The European, Dinner By Heston, Pope Joan, Africola, and Gerard’s Bistro.

The following year came Olsson’s macrobiotic sea salt and the opulent black truffle salt, which leaves the white salt speckled with aromatic black flecks of Australian truffle.

Alex Olsson is perhaps being modest when she describes the products as “just a natural progression”.

She argues that it’s simply part of a bigger national picture.

“As we’re developing our own sense of an Australian identity, our food culture has developed alongside it,” she explains, adding that “a company tends to develop along with the experience and the talents of the people inside it”.

Despite recent fears about salt in Australian diets, especially from an increased intake of processed foods, Olsson says salt is vital to everyone’s health.

“Having too little sodium is far worse than having too much,” she says.

Olsson believes that a greater focus on what she calls “foundational ingredients” is part of a more sophisticated national identity, pointing to the sauniers of Le Salin de l’île Saint-Martin, in the French town of Gruissan on the Mediterranean coast who produce la fleur de sel (the flower of salt), as an example of the esteem in which salt is held.

“The salt makers in Languedoc are considered national treasures. They’ve been making salt there for 800 years,” she says.

Olsson’s now produces a range of gourmet salt products from flakes to rock salt and crystals, as well as dry marinades. Her latest innovation draws on her family’s Scandinavian heritage in a collaboration with an acclaimed chef (The Bridge Room’s Lusted) and another artisan food producer, Charlie Costelloe, from Canberra’s Pialligo Estate Smokehouse.

Smoked salt is the company’s latest innovation

Olsson’s red gum-smoked sea salt flakes are another labor of love, combining Nordic tradition with Australian flavour. Olsson spent three years debating and experimenting with Lusted before they chose river red gum to flavour the salt. It takes 3 days (72 hours) to make at the Pialligo Estate Smokehouse, where Costelloe was already using Olsson’s salt to cure his award-winning bacon.

The end result has a complex aroma and flavour that adds an incredible new flavour to cooking, from popcorn to steaks.

And the collaboration is a reminder that what seems like the humblest of ingredients can be elevated to something sublime.

“I love the creativity that chefs have and that inspires me,” Olsson says. “The idea of making things that people can use every day is awesome.”

She’s hoping to work with more great Australian chefs to produce products everyone can use, knowing that they “add moments of joy to your life”.

Creating products that have the ability to create pleasure for others gives Olsson the thrill and drive to pursue new ideas.

Olsson wants her salts to help create moments for people as they share the table with family and friends.

“They’re tiny portions of time that loom large in your memory.”

Olsson’s red gum-smoked sea salt flakes are available now. For stockists see here.

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