The taste of the Atlantic in each flake of salt: an Outer Banks couple’s gift to diners and chefs
by MOLLY HARRISON photography by KEITH LANPHER
Salt is so ubiquitous, so commonplace, that we easily become immune to its wonder. We sling it mindlessly onto our popcorn, hurl unmeasured pinches at our soups and stews, toss little unused packets of it into the trash with our french fry bags.
We rarely consider its source and never question its unending supply, but step into Amy and John Gaw’s world and the miracle that is salt becomes obvious. The two run Outer Banks SeaSalt, a small artisanal company that operates out of their Poplar Branch home and services some of the best chefs in Virginia and North Carolina.
Atlantic Ocean water, contained in 5-gallon buckets, arrives by the truckload from 30 miles away via strong-armed teenage boys. The seawater is boiled and reduced for hours upon hours, in the garage and on stovetop, until salt crystals bloom and drop, released from their watery bindings.
As the residual water, the bittern, is poured away, mounds of wet, white flakes are revealed. After drying on pans in the oven, the finished salt is hand-fluffed, falling through fingers into a snowy white heap.
Just one crystalline flake can inspire awe. Dabbed on the tongue, it pops with the bright flavor of the ocean, a flash memory of licking your lips in the sea. The process is so simple, the results so elemental, it’s poetic.
“Dust of the sea,” wrote Pablo Neruda, “… the smallest miniature wave from the saltcellar reveals to us more than domestic whiteness; in it, we taste infinitude.”
Yep. That’s about it.
Amy Gaw, 50, has always had a passion for food and an alternative approach. “I’m a food futurist,” she says. In the 1990s she turned her attention to the global grassroots Slow Food movement, which is dedicated to preserving regional cuisines, and began her journey of bringing together local food producers and consumers.
With her business Outer Banks Epicurean, she prepared pre-made high-quality meals for busy people, taught cooking classes, offered personal chef services and catered Slow Food weddings, sourcing everything as close to home as possible.
One day while she made a shopping list, it occurred to her that she wasn’t sourcing locally the one thing in abundant supply on the Outer Banks: sea salt. Of course, harvesting it proved tougher than imagined.
“We quickly learned that producing sea salt is not just going to the ocean and grabbing a bucket and putting it on the stove and boiling it until all the water is gone,” says John Gaw, 70. “Because we tried that and wound up with a very hard white substance on the bottom of the pot that we could hardly get out.”
Thanks to Google, and trial and error, Amy developed a salt-making
process based on the Old World technique of reducing saltwater over culinary fire, the same process Outer Bankers used in the 1700s.
The Gaws experimented with alternative methods – solar evaporation and wind drying – but the region has too much wind and too much humidity for those to work. The reduction process creates a product consistent in flavor and texture, one that reflects the mineral-rich merroir of the ocean water off the Outer Banks.
The Gaws began selling Outer Banks SeaSalt in 2009, just as John was retiring from his career as an attorney. The business has grown exponentially over the past seven years, but their in-home process hasn’t changed. A 5-gallon bucketful of seawater produces 1 pound of salt, and the process is slow.
“It’s all done by hand, and it takes a lot of tending and production,” John says. “Two and a half days is rushing it through. That’s a minimum. It could easily be three. That’s a lot of time to get a pound of salt.” The company produces about 100 pounds a month, which Amy says is done by keeping a “continuous flow.” Salt is always in production, even while they sleep.
The Gaws share their salt freely with up-and-coming chefs, a move that helps promote the product. The first big-name chef to buy from them was Raleigh restaurant magnate Ashley Christensen. Vivian Howard at Chef and the Farmer orders regularly, which Amy calls “especially validating.”
“We know it’s a viable business because people buy it and they buy it again,” Amy says. “It’s more than a novelty.”
One of their biggest clients is Charlotte chef Clark Barlowe of Heirloom, which sources all of its ingredients from North Carolina.
“Outer Banks SeaSalt has been a staple at Heirloom restaurant since day one,” he says. “When we tell people everything we use is from N.C., even the salt, it’s certainly a wow factor. It also helps to have the relationship we do with Amy and John; we know the story and people behind the product and are proud to support that.”
Barlowe says Outer Banks SeaSalt has an umami quality that draws you in. “Whether we are using it as a finishing salt or for a specialized cure,” he says, “the flavor always enhances the original ingredient.”
Chef Sam McGann at The Blue Point, in Duck, describes the salt as having a “gentle minerality” with a moist, medium-fine grain. He uses it in whipped butter for bread, on tenderloin and braised short ribs, and as a garnish on salted caramel ice cream. He also adds a pinch atop the crust of the summer fruit cobbler as it comes out of the oven.
Amy says the business is growing rapidly, probably very soon beyond the confines of their kitchen. “We’re feeling the most growth that we’ve ever felt right now,” she says before rattling off a long list of food distributors, retailers, food-subscription boxes, breweries, chefs and competitions that are selling or using the sea salt.
“Our salt is like a life force and entity of its own,” she says. “And since the beginning we have just kind of held on and watched where it’s gone.”
What is Outer Banks SeaSalt?
Outer Banks SeaSalt is good old fashioned NaCl, hand harvested from the pristine Atlantic Ocean just off the coast of the Outer Banks of North Carolina using heritage practices and a whole lot of love. Small batch production ensures a high quality SeaSalt and provides the consumer with a taste of the summer ocean any time of the year.
This local favorite is dried without the assistance of anti-caking agents found in most table salts. There are also no added colorants or iodine. Outer Banks SeaSalt is an all-natural salt and can be used in every day recipes and as a finishing salt for special treats. Try it with your favorite chocolate!
Outer Banks SeaSalt launched in November of 2009 and has become a popular gift for visitors to take home – often for themselves – and for locals. The salt is available in several retail outlets and can also be purchased online and shipped.
A true labor of love, the salt water is collected by hand by John Gaw and his team of trusty pullers and the extraction of the salt, which follows centuries old heritage techniques long practiced on the Outer Banks, is performed by partner (and wife!) Amy Huggins Gaw.
Outer Banks SeaSalt is available in 1, 2 and 4 ounce sizes as well as in bulk for our chef clients.
It can also be personalized as favors for weddings, birthdays and corporate events.
Email us about wholesale or other crafty partnerships,