August 27, 2008

Maine’s Waters Offer More Than Lobsters to Whet Your Palate


I'm just back from a week or so lolling in the land of lobstahs and sea salt and blueberry pies and peace and tranquility.

Most every summer, I take time for a long, cool exhale in Down East Maine. I'm fortunate; my cousin Georgiana Kendall lives on a five-generation family farm and rents out two lakeside cottages (which the locals call camps) way, way, way up on the northern coast, past Portland, past Kittery, past Bar Harbor in a region that is largely neglected by tourists.

This year, on a day when the sky turned moody and a chilly wind blew out of the north, Georgiana arranged for us to do something that I've been wanting to do for a couple of summers: take a tour of the Quoddy Mist Gourmet Sea Salt plant.

Gourmet sea salts have become de rigueur for chefs and serious home cooks in the past few years. Mere table salt has bowed to quick- dissolving "finishing" or "pinch" salts, which are sprinkled on after the food has been prepared. They come in colors ranging from black to pink, and flavors like vanilla and chili.

Quoddy Mist's all-natural salts come in several sea vegetable- flavored varieties and are just now settling into salt racks at high- end restaurants and shelves at Whole Foods markets in New England.

I met the owner, Clayton Lank, a couple of summers ago in Lubec, the easternmost town in the United States, at Annabell's, the easternmost pub in the United States.

Lank is a former Grand Banks fisherman, lobsterman and salmon processor who earned his computer science degree at age 42. Now, at age 50, the Lubec native is harvesting thousands of gallons of briny, nutrient-rich water from the Bay of Fundy, famous for its rushing 50-foot tides and vast variety of sea life. He extracts the salt, culling it by crystal size, and flavoring it with nori, wasabi, sea lettuce, Irish moss and dulse, edible seaweed.

"Us people from the East Coast love our dulse," Lankford said. Georgiana agreed and I just wondered if straight-up dulse might be an eating adventure for another August.

Lank's sea salt operation is just a few doors down from Annabell's on Lubec's main street, where the misty air itself tastes faintly of the sea.

It's housed in a century-old sardine cannery with a sagging roof perched on daddy longleg-like pilings over the Lubec Narrows. Lank shares the space with a sea urchin research firm and a company that brokers the catch of the day from the town's tiny lobster and scallop fishing fleet. A sea cucumber processing plant that occupied the old canning room just recently closed shop.

Lank's patent for turning frigid sea water into gourmet salt with a high mineral content was approved this summer.

He walked us into his "plant," a huge warehouse of a room with a cement floor painted blue. Through a window filmy with saltwater spray, I spied the squat, white lighthouse on Campobello Island, Canada, about a football field away across the narrows.

The trick to producing a "white tablecloth" product, Lank said, is to end up with a salt that retains trace minerals - believed to be healthful - and which impart a depth of taste absent from regular table salt.

Lank was aiming for a process that yields 90 percent sodium chloride (that's table salt) and 10 percent minerals. He was ecstatic when tests showed that his salts are between 20 and 27 percent minerals, a ratio that he said puts him on par with the famous fleur de sel salts from France.

It all starts on the incoming tide, when more than 3,000 gallons of water are sucked out of the narrows and into tanks inside the old cannery. The water flows through a maze of pipes to titanium tanks that quickly heat the sea water - which only gets up to about 55 degrees in the summer - to more than 230 degrees. The process involves computers and radar, even.

The resulting salt crystals are turned out onto wooden tables to dry a bit, a process that requires a separate room with a Virginia Beach-like climate that on that chilly day made me homesick for one single second.

Some of the slightly moist salts are seasoned with spices or varieties of ground sea vegetables that Lank buys from local harvesters. Some salt is left unseasoned, and some is sent to a local who smokes it with hickory.

Lank offered us tastes of all 14 varieties of salt, sprinkled atop fresh cucumber slices. Each had its own personality. The unflavored salt was flaky and extremely salty, like something I'd sprinkle on an omelet. The wasabi was a faint yellow and had a light flavor. Lank said that the "Seven Seas" variety has gotten a reputation as a "sweet salt," and it did deliver a fleeting sweetness at the finish.

Last year, Georgiana mailed me a case of Quoddy Mist, which I distributed among my epicurean posse. By this summer, our jars sat empty. So, of course, I returned home with a case jammed into the guts of my carry-on, cargo that immediately had me whisked into the "possible terrorist" line at the airport.

That's a small inconvenience for a lot of flavor .

Lorraine Eaton, (757) 446-2697, [email protected]

how to get it

Quoddy Mist sea salt is available at www.quoddy Jars range from $7 for plain sea salt to $9.50 for the sea vegetable blends.

Originally published by BY LORRAINE EATON | STAFF EPICURE.

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