Read: Irish Foodie | Simply salty at Achill Island Sea Salt
First published in Irish Foodie, Spring 2023.
Chefs always have their favourite brands to finish foods, Nigella carries a pinch pot of it around in her handbag, Samin Nosrat calls it one of the four basic elements of good cooking: salt is essential but not many people stop to think about where it comes from.
“We never even had salt on the table growing up,” laughs Maebh O’Malley of Achill Island Sea Salt. “Then my mum saw a documentary on sea salt production in the UK and wondered why this wasn’t happening in Ireland.” While Marjorie O’Malley was having her lightbulb moment, her husband Kieran – an Achill native – was reading a book about the history of the island. “He realised that there used to be sea salt pans on Achill. Salt was made all along the West Coast,” says O’Malley. “Even place names like Salthill, Salty Island – they all came from salt-making areas.”
In 2013, while O’Malley was still in college, her parents took their first steps into salt production, starting by boiling sea water in the kitchen. From small beginnings, the salt quickly developed its own momentum: “it went to the little market in Achill and Café Rua in Castlebar. Kelly’s Butcher in Newport took it and tweeted about it. Then RTÉ’s Ear To The Ground came down that September and a lot of chefs started talking about us and that really spurred us on.”
Making the salt in their family kitchen wasn’t going to be sustainable for too long, however. O’Malley remembers that it used to rust all the saucepans. One Christmas, she came home from college to find her room full of pots and trays being used for salt production. “In 2014 we got a portakabin outside the house,” she remembers, which enabled her parents to make 20kg of salt a week. With demand continuing to increase, however, they soon outgrew that and shifted to a facility in Bunacurry in the north east of the island during 2016. “We’ve been there since. We just kept getting orders,” says O’Malley, “and my mother likes to say that it was harder to stop than keep going!”
Making the salt is a simple, but labour-intensive, process, explains O’Malley. “We collect the water at a pier on the north of the island, using a tanker. We take it back to the factory, filter it and evaporate it under pressure to bring it down to concentrated brine. That is pumped into a big open pan, where it is gently heated and it slowly forms into sea salt crystals. The process is slow and low, which creates very soft flaky sea salt. Then we dry and package it.” Everything is done by hand, all the packing and labelling, and they now produce 100kg of their salt a week, using no chemicals, additives or anti-caking agents.
“It takes about five to six days from collection to packing,” says O’Malley. “We have three full-time staff in production and myself and another person in the office. Then it expands in summer with our visitor centre and coffee shop.” As well as her parents, who are still very much involved, O’Malley works on sales and marketing. Her older brother Seán was involved at the beginning of the business and helped to upscale the factory while Colm, her younger brother, helps out in The Salt Dock, their summer season coffee truck which is situated alongside Achill Island Sea Salt HQ. It’s a popular stop for summer visitors, as they can take part in a free, self-guided tour on site. “Most people don’t know how salt is made and they are interested in it and in the history of salt,” says O’Malley. “There’s not much to do in Achill when it’s raining,” she adds with the air of a woman well used to changeable west of Ireland weather. “We do good business on bad days!”
When it comes to flavour, O’Malley points out that all sea salt is different and that’s to do with the water and process used. The sea water has a high mineral content around Achill and none of that is lost in the slow, natural process of turning it into salt. To showcase it, O’Malley uses tomatoes. “Tastings with tomatoes work well. We always get a really good reaction. People say ‘salt is just salt’ but they’re so shocked by the difference in taste with our salt on the tomato.”
Achill Island sea salt comes in three different flavours: there’s a seaweed salt with wakame seaweed from the Connemara Organic Seaweed Company, a salt smoked with beach and oak – “we’ve just purchased our own smoker to smoke on site” – and the flaky original sea salt. They’ve also diversified into sweet products, collaborating with producers like Mella’s Fudge, Miena’s Nougat and chocolatiers including Exploding Tree Chocolate and Noo Chocolates, bringing a touch of their crunchy salt to enhance other flavours.
This is the kind of ingredient that can pop up in many different places, including in your own kitchen. Next time you want a pinch of salt on your boiled egg or a few salty flakes to finish a steak or to sprinkle on a batch of chocolate chip cookies, look towards Achill Island to bring a delicious taste and texture to your table.
The Achill Island Sea Salt visitor centre, located in Bunacurry, Achill, Co Mayo, reopens for the summer in June 2023. More information on stockists, plus an online shop, is available at achillislandseasalt.ie.