A Company Worth Its Salt
To a trained palate and a health-conscious mind, there is no comparison between common table salt and Molokai sea salt. No one knows this better than salt master Nancy Gove, who has made salt her business since 1999. Today, she says her gourmet salt company, Pacifica Hawaii, is doing better than ever, and her customers favor its flavor and its health benefits.
“On any island, it’s easy to find us,” she said. Her flavored salt recipes are popular with chefs and gift shops alike, and her market has expanded to supply large-scale distributors like Whole Foods, Food Land and Hilo Hatties. Internet sales stock many locations throughout the islands as well as on the mainland. Her salt is also available at various retail shops on Molokai.
Ever since she tasted the salt spray which settled on her arm while paddling and realized how good it tasted, she’s been passionate about the stuff. Gove began exploring salt – or pa`akai – in its natural forms as it dries in rock crevices by the ocean, and later developed methods of making the substance away from its origin.
In 1999, she started company Hawaii Kai, getting federal and state grants, investors, and certifications to produce Molokai sea salt commercially. In 2005, however, she left the company, and two years later, launched Pacifica Hawaii, which has received national recognition.
From Ocean to Table
It all begins with a seemingly simple process that Gove has developed over years of teaching herself to make salt. She fills a 30-gallon tank with ocean water, filters it through an ultraviolet light and into a holding tank, where it becomes filtered, sterilized sea water. The liquid is then poured into drying pans and left to rest in drying boxes placed around her yard.
There, “you just watch it get really pretty,” said Gove. The sun heats the salt water to 160 degrees, and the breeze blowing through the vents (designed by former woodworker Gove) aids in the evaporation process.
Crystals begin to form on top of the water. Salt in its whole form from seawater, explained Gove, is comprised of over 80 elements. Common table salt contains only one element – sodium chloride. These first crystals are called “bitters” and are made up of all the elements except sodium chloride. The name is accurate – the substance has a pungent flavor that makes your nose wrinkle. Once the salt water is completely dried, however, Gove mixes everything together, and the result is a richly-flavored, saltier-than-table-salt substance.
“People are surprised how complex [the flavor] is,” she said. And because whole salt has more depth and complexity than just “salty,” Gove said people find they need less on their food than common table salt.
“That’s what this is all about – getting the best flavor and good health,” she said.
Besides the bitters, other crystals take shape around the waterline of the pan, known as “salt creep.” Gove said when she first began making salt in her attic, this invasive phenomenon actually crept out of the pans and all the way into the trusses of her house.
Each form has a different shape – “that’s what I love about this,” said Gove. Pure sodium chloride, for example, is always formed in perfect cubes, she explained. Others are flakey, chunky, and anything in between.
Within two days, the whole pan has turned crystalline, and in three days, the salt is ready to harvest.
“The nice thing about salt is you never really lose it – even if it rains, it comes back with the sun,” she said.
Gove has also developed a system for drying salt that doesn’t rely on the breeze, but instead uses evaporation – the non-saline condensation runs out into a jug, leaving only the salt behind. She suggests this method for wetter climates, like Ho`olehua.
Many Hands Make Good Salt
Salt-making has become a community partnership, and Gove said she has help around the island. Residents (Gove does not disclose who or how many) dry salt in their own backyards, under Gove’s supervision.
“People in the community are getting paid and we enjoy what we do,” she said.
Nowadays, Gove keeps busy with the research and development side of the business.
Once the dried salt is harvested, it is mixed into one of the eight recipes she created. Some have special health properties along with their aesthetic and flavor. She mixes salt with red alae clay, for example, for a rust-colored specialty. The clay, she said, contains many trace minerals just like the whole salt itself. Kupuna speak about adding clay to salt in Hawaiian tradition, she said, for a mixture known for drawing toxins out of the body.
Another popular blend, sold as “black lava,” is activated charcoal mixed with salt, which has similar health properties as the alaea, Gove said.
The newest of the eight recipes is Koloa Rum, developed at the request of the Kauai-based liquor company. Others include Blush Cabernet, Balsamic, and, of course, the pure-white, pure whole salt, sold as “White Coral.”
“You eat with your eyes as well as the fragrance that comes out,” Gove said of the colorful, flavored recipes.
While Gove does the developing, the mixing, packaging, labeling and mailing is done by Molokai caterer Michelle Naeole, out of her certified kitchen in Ho`olehua. Salt has become more than a side business for Naeole, who’s been involved in the project for about two years.
Naeole and her family mix 60-pound batches, which produces about 1000 8-ounce bags. Everything is done by hand.
While the process is labor-intensive, connoisseurs around the world can enjoy a taste of Molokai pa`akai.