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A Nova Scotia couple has made international headlines as businesses like theirs cater to a growing appetite for hand-crafted salt

Salt farmer Onya Hogan-Finlay harvests sea water off Bush Island on Nova Scotia's South Shore. It is chilling work: On this February day, it feels like -20 with the windchill.Photography by Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

An hour and a half drive from Halifax, beyond a two-kilometre ribbon of sand, over a metal bridge and onto an island ringed with ice, the salt sorceresses wade into the frigid Atlantic. Onya Hogan-Finlay dips a bucket, filling it with seawater. She pours it through a filter to catch the microplastics and then, clambering and slipping over seaweed-covered rocks, hands it off to her spouse, Kim Kelly, in the back of their dark green Ford Ranger.

The women bend and lug, schlep and squabble until the truck is filled with big white buckets of seawater. On the short bumpy ride back to their small wooden house on the hill, it sloshes and spills. Soon, with a little alchemy, this saltwater will crystalize into about seven kilograms of rich crunchy salt flakes, packaged into brown envelopes and mailed to home cooks, chefs and wholesale markets across Canada and the U.S.

It’s the first official year of business for OK Sea Salt (O is for Onya, K is for Kim). They’ve been making waves in the sleepy community of lobster fishermen and summer residents with their story of two gay women moving from Los Angeles to Bush Island, N.S., to start making sea salt. A year in, the salty dykes, as they’ve branded themselves, have been written about in The New Yorker and Vogue, only adding to the local buzz about their venture, part of a nascent industry in rural coastal communities across the Atlantic region.

Ms. Hogan-Finlay and Kim Kelly are the owners of OK Sea Salt.

“There’s no recipe for this process,” said Ms. Kelly. “All of us are making this up as we’re going along.” Other East Coast salt makers have imparted tips and hacks, like where to source the particular handheld pump that fine-tuned their process, and the two joke, saved their marriage.

Every salt farmer does it a little differently, but mostly, crafting sea salt involves distilling seawater – either through solar evaporation, freezing or slow boiling. Once it hits a level of supreme saltiness, the magic happens. Salt begins to crystalize, forming tiny floating diamond shapes, which clump together into confetti-sized pyramids.

Just as the term “terroir” applies to the soil where grapes grow in winemaking, salt makers say the location of the seawater affects the taste of their sea salts. “Meroir” – usually used to describe the taste of oysters – is the unique ocean flavour defined by its minerals and macrobiology. The Nova Scotia women have been told their sea salt tastes like orange hard candy, wakame seaweed salad and aloe juice. Others would simply say it’s clean, crisp and bright.

Peter Burt is co-owner of Newfoundland Salt Company in Bonavisa, N.L.Adam Daniel Hefferman

Every locale has its weather-related challenges, from too much fog in summer to above zero temps in winter and ice blocking access to the cleanest seawater. For Robin Crane and Peter Burt of Newfoundland Salt Company in the rural community of Bonavista, N.L., the slob ice (slushy chunks of ice) is sitting in the bay, keeping them from being able to pull seawater, something that hasn’t happened in two years.

This March, the couple and their one year-round employee spent hours shovelling snow to harvest low lying juniper bushes. Mr. Burt burns the bushes to make juniper-smoked sea salt. It’s one of the various Newfoundland-inspired flavours they add to their sea salt, which is used by chefs all over the country, including Anthony Walsh at Bar Sofia in Halifax and the leading Canadian restaurant group, Oliver & Bonacini, with restaurants in Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton and Montreal.

Mr. Burt, a former chef at the renowned Raymonds Restaurant in St. John’s, started crafting small batches of sea salt more than a decade ago for his own cooking. He shared it with a few chef friends who asked for more. He and his wife soon realized the demand was much bigger than what he could produce in one weekend. Several years ago, the couple opened a salt-making operation and shop in Bonavista, at the end of a cape in the middle of the North Atlantic.

“I boil water for a living,” laughs Mr. Burt. “It’s pretty fun when you get orders from a country you’ve never been to.”

Once Ms. Hogan-Finlay and Ms. Kelly have harvested water from the sea, the salt gets expelled from the water as it freezes, a process called brine rejection.
The culinary world has found plenty of uses for the Nova Scotia couple’s salt, such as Ms. Hogan-Finlay’s triple-ginger cookies.

The appreciation for hand-crafted salt seems to only be expanding. The Nova Scotia couple discovered this past December that their OK sea salt unexpectedly appeared in New Yorker food critic Hannah Goldfield’s end-of-year column, describing the five best things she ate in 2022. Ms. Goldfield, whose family summers on one of the nearby islands, bought a package of their salt at the farmers market in nearby Lunenburg this past summer.

Overnight, sales shot up to the point that the women had to shut down their online shop. Three-months’ worth of salt sold in one day, which was over the top for the two, who on average make about half a kilogram of salt a day. Less than a month later, a friend pointed out that Vogue mentioned OK’s beach rose petal sea salt in its Valentine’s queer gift guide. Again, the women were floored.

They use their newfound popularity to help out various causes, such as to repair the roof on a local community hall by selling bumper stickers that say, “I love OK Sea Salt salty dykes.”

Inside their cozy seaside home, overlooking fishing boats and lobster traps stacked in the snow, the couple pulls out recipe books with yellowed pages that harken back to the days when people cooked with the seasons. It’s these rituals they follow, and salt always plays a part.

The last salts to crystallize are too bitter to eat but rich in magnesium. Ritual salts, as they call them, are great for using in baths and casting spells. During the equinox – in September and March, when day and night become about equal in length – the women sprinkle the ritual salt around their property by candlelight. It’s the time they set their intentions: to sustain themselves by taking a little, but not too much, from Mother Nature, and giving back. Their magic appears to have worked.

Ms. Kelly dishes out some OK Sea Salt Fleur de Sel.

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