Somewhere in a restaurant kitchen in Toronto’s Roncesvalles Village is a very special Mason jar. Its contents are used sparingly as they took hours to gather, and can only be replaced during an annual pilgrimage to the source. That jar is filled with sea salt that Geoff Hopgood, chef and owner of Hopgood’s Foodliner, culls from the Annapolis Basin in Nova Scotia.
When the Halifax-raised Hopgood first moved to Toronto from Vancouver, he started foraging around the city for edibles, like wild leeks, and sold them to chefs. Nowadays, he has his own kitchen to work with and he still likes to keep his nose to the ground as much as possible, or rather, his hands in the ocean. For Hopgood, salt is just an extension of his desire to use and eat what grows together, no matter where or what it is. “Salt is the ultimate in my relationship with foraging because we’re right on the ocean [in Nova Scotia] and it’s very clean water,” he says. Hopgood first tried making his own sea salt at his family cottage during his honeymoon at Smiths Cove, in Digby County a few years ago. “There was a great minerality to it because of the rocky shore,” he recalls. So he lugged eight litres of sea water from the shore to his cottage, filling sheet pans with the briny liquid and evaporating it over six hours in a 200-degree oven. “You just scrape it up and you get these beautiful crystals that are very delicate and have a great texture,” he says. The crystals are large and moist, like sel gris from France, but clear like fleur-de-sel.
Hopgood tries to make it back to that same spot in Nova Scotia every summer to gather buckets of brine and harvest the salt therein. Although making your own salt may sound like a fools errand when it’s readily available, Hopgood says that it’s just another part of his dedication to sourcing ingredients. (For his trouble, Hopgood yields about a 1.25-litre jar of fluffy, loosely packed salt from that eight-litre batch of sea water.) “To me, there are certain things about food that just pique my interest. When I like them, I obsess about them,” he says. The salt is a way of highlighting quality foodstuffs from Nova Scotia – at his restaurant he pairs it with fish from his home province, in as raw a state as possible. “We like to use the sea salt as a finishing salt on a scallop or swordfish crudo,” he explains. “If I can make salt from the [same] ocean that we get our mackerel or scallops from, that means something to me.”