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Food & Wine B.C.’s coastal waters bring natural sea salt flavours to the kitchen

Chefs use a lot of salt – expensive sea salt – a fact that got chef Andrew Shepherd thinking about why no one was harvesting it from British Columbia's clean coastal waters.

"I'm living on Vancouver Island, literally 60 seconds away from a large tidal zone in Cherry Point," says Shepherd, who challenged doubters when he boiled his first pot of sea water to create a handful of local salt in 2010.

Today, his Vancouver Island Salt Co. is the largest artisanal salt maker in the country, producing 1,000 pounds (450 kilograms) of West Coast sea salt every week, including naturally flavoured salts such as roasted garlic, balsamic vinegar, Jamaican jerk and blue-cheese salt.

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"We infuse the salt with real roasted garlic, orange and lime zest and blue cheese when it's in that wet, slushy stage – it literally sucks the flavour out of anything," says Shepherd. "We use the blue cheese on steak and it's fantastic on popcorn."

Today, Shepherd's fleur de sel and flavoured salt is making it into the kitchens of chefs and bakers in British Columbia and to retailers across the country. Victoria artisan baker Byron Fry uses it exclusively in his rustic loaves baked in his wood-fired oven. "It's the only salt we buy, and we use it in the bread, the sausage rolls, pretzels, all of our baking," Fry says. "It's important in a product that only has three ingredients, water, flour and salt. I can really taste the difference – you can get a real acidic bite from iodized salt."

At Amuse Bistro in the Cowichan Valley, chef Brad Boisvert focuses on local ingredients and was pleased to find a quality local salt to include in his cooking, too. It's also used in Toronto restaurants, from the high-end Canoe to Table 17, a neighbourhood favourite in Leslieville.

And Shepherd's product is now beyond carbon-neutral – the steam boilers he uses run on 100-per-cent recycled cooking oil and the operation sells carbon credits. "I'd like to see if Canada can build a real industry out of it," he says. "But I don't think it's right to pillage the Earth of fossil fuels to make salt while others can use the sun."

Vancouver Island Sea Salt is available at retailers across Canada, from Whole Foods in Vancouver to West Elm Market in Toronto. $6.99/227 g box from visaltco.com.

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