Salt Life at Cape May Sea Salt Company

By Alex Jones / Photography By Jim Connolly | May 01, 2017
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Salt Bar

A surfer turned chef is harvesting New Jersey’s waters for an essential ingredient
 

Before humans—before animals, before plants—there was salt.

Encased in mountains, dissolved in seawater, bubbling in brine springs, salt is everywhere. All animals (including humans) and some plants have evolved to depend on it. The sodium in salt helps our bodies generate nerve impulses and regulates our electrolyte and fluid balance, heart activity and metabolism; we need chloride for digestive and respiratory function. We’re constantly depleting the supply of salt in our bodies and must constantly replenish it.

For Lucas Manteca, founder of Cape May Sea Salt Company, salt is much more than a nutritional requirement and an essential kitchen ingredient. The chef and restaurateur’s life has been shaped by his relationship to the salty sea, from his youth as a surfer to the first restaurant he opened as a chef (Stone Harbor’s erstwhile Sea Salt) to his latest venture as New Jersey’s first commercial salt maker in generations.

Manteca studied at hospitality school in Argentina. Then, attracted by the prospect of surfing in his off hours, moved to Costa Rica, where he opened his first restaurant. It was there that he met Avalon native Deanna Ebner, now his wife, who was working front of house at a neighboring spot. They moved to Miami together and then New York City, where Manteca graduated from the French Culinary Institute.

He went on to work for acclaimed chefs like Dan Barber and Alain Ducasse, at the kind of ultra-fine-dining restaurant that closes for a few weeks or months each year so that chefs can experiment with new recipes and travel for inspiration, something that appealed to Manteca’s wanderlust and creativity. He and Deanna were also ready to settle down; they realized that the Jersey shore could provide them with a stable home base to open their own place, start a family and enjoy freedom in the off-season.

Manteca and Ebner’s first venture, opened in 2005, was Sea Salt in Stone Harbor. Manteca wanted to extend the farm-to-table ethos he practiced in sourcing his produce to a chef’s most powerful ingredient: sea salt. He gathered seawater and improvised an evaporation system in the restaurant’s backyard to make his first small, painstaking batches. Manteca loved the flavor, the texture and the provenance of the salt but could only produce enough for diners at his restaurant to use at the table.

Sea Salt closed in 2009, but the idea of making his own salt stuck with Manteca, who also owns the Red Store in Cape May Point, Quahog’s Seafood Shack in Stone Harbor and the Taco Shop at Cape May Airport. He wanted to turn his sea salt idea into something bigger than a sea-to-table novelty.

A Traditional Take

Manteca knew that salt can be made quickly by heating seawater, but he wanted his operation to be as close to carbon-neutral as possible, which meant relying on traditional methods that coastal-dwelling humans have used to collect salt for thousands of years: sun and wind. Enclosing the operation in a solar-heated greenhouse—the kind of structure most farmers already have on their land—would speed up the process of reducing water from the ocean into liquid salt, then into prized fleur de sel crystals and flake salt for cooking.

After searching for the perfect business partner—someone with a little land, greenhouse equipment, and an open mind—Manteca connected with Derrek Thomas of Windy Acres Farm. Thomas and his wife Stephanie grow flowers and produce on their fourth-generation farm in Robbinsville, just outside Cape May Courthouse. Windy Acres’ partnership with Manteca gives the farm a product it can sell all year long.

The first step in making a batch of sea salt is gathering seawater. “You need to get a lot of water to be able to produce enough salt to commercialize it,” says Manteca—a gallon for every four ounces of finished salt. While Manteca gathered seawater with buckets at first, the duo have developed a proprietary method of quickly filling truck tanks with thousands of gallons per haul. They collect water from certain spots off the coast of Avalon when the tide is high and where the water is as clear as possible.

“What people don’t understand is our water is very clean,” he says. “It could be the water in the Caribbean. We get a very, very small amount of sediment.” While consumers often react with amusement to the idea of salt made with Jersey Shore seawater, Manteca assures consumers that the product is safe and his operation is legal.

“We researched every department—the Department of Agriculture, the FDA, you name it—and there’s absolutely nothing that we’re doing” that is not allowed, Manteca says. “It’s like fishing. There [are] places that you can fish and places that you cannot fish.”

Once the truck is back at the farm—expending the only fossil fuels involved in the production process—the seawater is emptied into aboveground pools and left alone for a few days so that any sediment collected will sink to the bottom. It’s then pumped through a series of fine mesh filters before it goes into huge shallow, black-lined pools to evaporate inside a greenhouse. The seawater is pumped from pool to pool, with a filtration step in between each one, until the sun’s heat—amplified by the greenhouse effect, in which temperatures can reach 130°F and feel like 160°F in the summer months— reduces it to a powerfully concentrated brine.

“If you touch your eyes after you touch that water, it burns,” Manteca says with a laugh. “It’s liquid salt.”

Once the pool of brine concentrates, large, snowflake-shaped crystals will begin to form on the surface and can be carefully skimmed off—this is the coveted fleur de sel, but it’s only available in such tiny amounts that Manteca reserves it for a few select wholesale customers. Pyramid-shaped crystals of salt—which Cape May Sea Salt Company crushes and sells as finishing salt in bags, grinders and tins—fall to the bottom to be raked into piles by hand, then dried on sheets in the sun and wind.

This process is not much different from how France’s salt makers have done it for centuries: hauling water, storing it in shallow clay-lined pools, and waiting for nature to do its work. Manteca gets a boost from the truck and the greenhouse, but he’s up before dawn to work the pools with his wooden rake before the heat of the day, just like the French paludiers.

Derek Thomas and Lucas Manteca of Cape May Sea Salt Co.
Brine
Photo 1: Derek Thomas and Lucas Manteca of Cape May Sea Salt Co.
Photo 2: Brine

Finding the Flavor

The flavor of a salt will vary based on the characteristics of the water it’s made from, how it’s processed, its moisture content, and a host of other factors. The salt Manteca makes has a pleasantly strong, sharp, clean flavor, so concentrated that he recommends you use less than usual when cooking or finishing dishes with his product. A mineral note, added by intentionally evaporating the brine after flake salt has been harvested to get crystals with a higher percentage of magnesium (an essential nutrient for the body’s metabolic processes), is another characteristic that Manteca takes care to include in his finished product.

“[The flavor] has to do with the concentration of the product and how slow it’s evaporated, and also due to the sunlight,” Manteca says. “It’s like the difference between sun-dried laundry and putting it in the dryer. . . . I do feel now that I can’t use any salt but ours [in the kitchen] because to me, it doesn’t have any flavor.”

Manteca takes care to consider the texture of his salt, too. Cape May Sea Salt’s crystals are chunky and crunchy—small and light enough to sprinkle over a rare steak or scallop crudo before digging in, but substantial enough for their texture to withstand the cooking process.

“How to be able to provide the right amount of product to provide the right salt taste and crunch?” says Manteca. “That’s a huge thing with our salt—our salt doesn’t melt completely. You could put it on a steak or fish and you’ll cook it and still, when you’re eating it, it doesn’t melt. That’s something that I think is really valuable about our product.”

Consumers and chefs seem to agree. The first Cape May Sea Salt was sold commercially in 2015; now, it’s carried by more than 60 retailers, including Whole Foods Market, in Philadelphia, New Jersey, and New York and by wholesalers like East Amwell–based food hub Zone 7 and Philly’s Samuels & Son seafood distributor.

Making a Statement

Now that Manteca and Thomas have the production process down pat and have seen clear demand for their product, they plan to collaborate more closely. They’ve already expanded the brand into bodycare products that include Windy Acres crops, like the lavender and peppermint in their bath salts; they’re working on producing flavored salt blends using herbs and peppers grown on the farm, too.

One blend that’s great on the rim of a michelada or sprinkled over grilled corn features cumin, cinnamon and chiles; another, meant to pair with a Bloody Mary, includes dried celery, horseradish and tomatoes from the farm. “El Gaucho” is a nod to Manteca’s Argentinian roots: Rub this grilling salt on a steak before it hits the flame to season and infuse the meat with thyme, oregano, parsley, cumin and vinegar—the flavors of chimichurri sauce.

Manteca is also considering moving away from higher-end sea salt offerings to a product that’s accessible to a wider range of consumers, not just foodies. “I want to put Cape May Sea Salt on everyone’s table,” he says. “We’re thinking of decreasing our pricing and working with more of a table salt that I believe is healthier” than what’s currently available to consumers. “Our salt is so salty that you can cut the amount of salt that you have. It doesn’t have fillers. I believe that you use less salt if you use better salt.”

While it’s hard to compete with salt makers whose processes and, in some cases, centuries-old traditions are better suited to making fleur de sel and other finishing salts, Manteca believes that he can develop a product that can compete with products like sel gris, a coarse-grained sea salt with a slightly lower price point.

If he succeeds, Manteca hopes that the same pride New Jerseyans feel for homegrown crops like tomatoes and blueberries will extend to the essential ingredient that boosts the flavors of just about every- thing grown in the Garden State.

“I thought, ‘Let’s make a statement,’” Manteca says of his sea salt. “This is a product that’s coming out of our water. It’s not Jersey next to Manhattan with all the factories. It’s a beautiful land.”

Cape May Sea Salt Co.


 

salt making technique
These fellow East Coast and Appalachian salt makers are practicing this ancient art from South Carolina to Maine.

BULLS BAY SALTWORKS   
McClellanville, South Carolina
Bulls Bay pulls pristine seawater from the Cape Romain Wildlife Refuge on the South Carolina coast just north of Charleston. Owners Rustin and Teresa Gooden stumbled upon their craft during an allday pig roast in 2012, when a pan of seawater and extra room in the smoker led to the first batch of their Smoked Sea Salt. Buy it  (as well as the unadorned version and one infused with the Fresno pepper mash from batches of Red Clay Hot Sauce) in flake form for finishing or in a grinder perfect for use at the table.


J.Q. DICKINSON SALT-WORKS 
Malden, West Virginia
The family of Nancy Bruns and Lewis Payne, the brother-sister team behind J.Q. Dickinson, has been making salt for seven generations in West Virginia’s Kanawha Valley. Their source? The prehistoric Iapetus Ocean, trapped beneath the Appalachian Mountains. In the nineteenth century, Bruns and Payne’s ancestors used hollowed-out logs to pump salt brine from below the earth to the surface, where it was boiled down into crystals. Today, J.Q. Dickinson uses sustainable “solar houses” to evaporate the brine passively into bright white, cripsy flakes with a high mineral content.

AMAGANSETT SEA SALT CO.
Amagansett, New York 
This Hamptons-based producer eschews greenhouses to speed solar evaporation, relying only on “sun, wind, a strong back and patience," according to its website. The fluffy, crunchy crystals with a potent salt flavor are perfect for finishing dishes; Amagansett also makes naturally flavored salts in varieties like Espresso, Black Pepper & Cayenne; Mirepoix; and Wasabi, Seame & Nori.

NORTH FORK SEA SALT CO.
Cutchogue, New York
Scott Bollman, North Fork native and chef/owner of Bruce & Sons Cheese Emporium, was inspired to start harvesting seawater by the bucketful after seeing a video of an old fisherman making salt on the stove. His process begins with seawater heated over fire; the product is finished through solar and wind evaporation.
 
MARBLEHEAD SALT CO.
Marblehead, Massachusetts
Founder Andrew Bushell grew up in Marblehead, a small coastal town just 20 miles north of Boston, but it wasn’t until he spent time with the Eastern Orthodox monks at Mount Athos in Greece that he learned about salt making. When he returned to Marblehead and was elected head of the charitable St. Paul’s Foundation, Bushell realized that he could cover the organization’s overhead through making and selling sea salt. The finished product varies seasonally in mineral content and flavor; but it's characterized by a fluffy texture and slightly higher moisture percentage than usual. The flavor is so pure that Bushell recommends starting with three-quarters of the amount of salt you normally would when using his product—which is also the only kosher-certified craft salt made in the United States.

MAINE SEA SALT
Marshfield, Maine 
Maine natives Steve and Sharon Cook first marketed their sea salt, harvested from the waters around Buck’s Harbor, in a one-ounce handmade envelope with directions for cooking lobster.  Today, they sell their sea salt in decorative jars, grinders and bulk bags with flavorful additions like dulse (seaweed), lemon zest, hickory-smoked, apple, and garlic. The salt is never heated: just evaporated from seawater using solar evaporation in greenhouses, then hand-harvested, ground and dried by hand between linen towels.

Article from Edible Jersey at http://ediblejersey.ediblecommunities.com/shop/salt-life-cape-may-sea-salt-company
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