Björn Steinar Jónsson is the man behind the Icelandic salt company Saltverk, producing hand harvested sustainable sea salt of high quality from the remote Westfjords of Iceland. The company was founded in 2011 by Björn and his two previous business partners, but has since 2012 been owned and run by Björn and his father Jón Pálsson. The story behind Saltverk is fantastic.
“The Danish king established salt production in the 18th century using geothermal energy to produce salt. The production stopped a few decades later and the tradition of salt making in Iceland came to an end.” – until Saltverk was founded.
Now, their salt can be found all across the world in top restaurants and in the homes of food enthusiasts.
How did the idea first come up?
The idea actually came from my friend Yngvi Eiriksson. We were studying at that time in Denmark and we were foodies, always appreciating good food and good restaurants. Then the thought came up, why there weren’t any active salt farms in Iceland. After a bit of research we chose Reykjanes in the Westfjords since it's proximity of the energy source (hot water) to the sea and also the pureness of the seawater surrounding the West Fjords. We had made a test saltpan, which could hold around 30 L of seawater. We drove to Reykjanes and led the hot water into a container that would fit the pan and then placed the pan full of seawater into the container. It took 7 days for 200 gr of salt to form. Which was enough proof that the idea at least worked. We took the 200 gr and drove to Reykjavik to present the salt to chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason, who was then the head chef and owner of DILL restaurant, now the head chef of Agern (NYC). He endorsed the salt and encouraged us to make some more and that is how it all started. But since then a lot of sea has turned into salt and lot of good times and hard times have passed through. We might even make a book one day: "The tales of the Salt makers".
Can you tell us about your team?
Currently the team consists of 12 people doing various tasks within Saltverk. Although we have it as a rule that everyone just has the title "Salt Maker". That being said everyone has hand harvested salt, packaged, sold and delivered salt to a customer and that is very valuable. Although everyone has their objectives we think it's a nice way to clear off the formalities and establish that everyone is equally important within our team. But a salt maker has to have a wide skill set, everything ranging from salt harvesting, maintenance, bookkeeping and sales.
You have a few different flavours on your salt. Is there a flavour that is particularly popular?
It depends on which market we are looking at. In general the most popular product is our Pure Flaky sea salt and for obvious reasons since it can be used in all cooking. But of the flavoured ones the Lava salt is very popular and the Arctic Thyme salt as well. These products probably capture the spirit of Iceland in a better way then the others, which makes them more popular abroad I guess.
What inspires the different flavours?
All of the flavours were carefully thought out. All of them reflect on Iceland or Icelandic traditions. The Birch Smoked salt refers to the Icelandic traditions on smoking fish and meat to preserve them. The smoking reminds us of Christmas and special occasions. The Lava salt is a reflection on the vast black lava fields and black sand beaches surrounding our island in the North Atlantic. The Arctic Thyme is a volcanic flower, which grows during mid summer and has a very fragrant smell. The smell reminds you of a walk in the wilderness after a summer rain has boosted the fragrance of your surroundings. The Seaweed salt is a homage to old Icelandic cuisine, using the handpicked seaweed to flavour soups similar to fish sauce in East-Asian cooking. Finally the Liquorice salt came up easily since people from the Nordics and especially Icelanders are crazy for liquorice.
Can you tell us of a few different ways to use your salt?
Our flake salt can be used for any occasion really. The soft crystals go really well as a finishing salt or they can be used during cooking. As for the flavoured salts we always recommend to use the Birch smoked salt with vegetables. Boiled new potatoes with butter and Birch smoked salt or an avocado smash toast with the Birch Smoked salt is an absolute hit! The Lava salt has its beautiful dark colour and is best used as a finishing salt to surprise your foodie friends. The Liquorice salt belongs with chocolate, fruits and desserts but go surprisingly well with lamb as well. The Arctic Thyme is perfect with lamb and curing meats and finally the Seaweed salt is great with chicken, fish, tomatoes and soups.
Can you give us a brief insight of the process - from sea to table?
The process is in theory very simple, but working with salt that corrodes everything, makes things a bit trickier. We use geothermal energy to evaporate the seawater and therefore we needed to design the system which would take in the 97°C hot water and use that to distil the seawater. We pump the seawater in to a large tank. Seawater has a salinity around 3,5%. In the tank we have 5 compartments, which we use as stages of salinity. When the seawater has evaporated in the tank and has reached around 15-20% salinity we pump the brine into what we call open saltpans. There the brine keeps distilling until it reaches salinity of 28%. When that happens the solution is saturated of salt and the salt crystals start forming on the surface. When they get big and heavy enough they fall to the bottom of the pan. We then hand harvest the salt from the pans and drain it overnight. Then we put it in our drying room where we use the residue hot water from the pans to warm up the air. After that we package and ship the salt from there.
Can people visit your factory?
Yes! This summer we started offering factory tours. There we show people around the facilities, tell them the story and show them how to harvest salt. People had been showing up since the beginning and knocking on our doors to see what we were doing. We have always greeted people but after last year we found that people were showing a lot more interest and that is why we decided to make an official factory tour. We also have a small shop at the location were you can buy our products.
Does Saltverk have any favourite Icelandic restaurants?
Saltverk celebrates Icelandic restaurants and has a lot of good friends. Few personal favourites are SLIPPURINN, a family run eatery in the Westman Islands open during summertime. SKÁL is a cocktail and beer bar serving bistro style food at Iceland's first food hall Hlemmur. MAT BAR is a Nordic/New Italian style restaurant with a vibrant feel to it. SNAPS is a French style bistro serving good food and drinks and really has a good atmosphere. And finally we mention DILL, which is Iceland's first Michelin starred restaurant and also the place that encouraged us in the beginning that our salt was premium and we should keep on doing it. DILL serves strictly new Nordic cuisine in a beautiful spot in downtown Reykjavik.