September 3, 2013 – Last week I was walking along a jagged stretch of coast south of Monterey when I spotted bright white patches on the rocks below. The ever-present wall of fog had been pushed almost out of sight by a warm breeze and the day was quickly becoming uncomfortably hot. Low tide was approaching and the ocean was docile, lapping at the shoreline with just enough fervor to sway the emerging sea palms. Always curious, I made my way down a cascade of sandstone to the rock shelf below. At this level I could see that the white patches were pools of evaporated ocean water, deposits of fine salt crystals caked against the porous stone. As I made my way further towards the ocean, the pools became deeper, eventually giving way to fissures filled with salty sludge.
I have walked this trail many times, but don’t remember seeing these salt pools. Perhaps they have always been there, but I suspect the low tide and calm ocean combined with the summer heat allowed them to dry more than usual and enable the salt to crystalize. At one pool I was able to remove a sheet of salt larger than my hand, but thin enough to be translucent. The size and structure of the salt crystals ranged dramatically based on the shape and orientation of the pool. The majority of the crystals were hard tiny cubes but there were also a few pyramids and lacy flakes like snow.
Native Americans along the Northern California coast were said to have used abalone shells to collect salt from cracks and crevices along the high tide line. One downside of collecting salt in this fashion is that it is highly susceptible to contamination. You should be confident that the location where you are harvesting is as pristine as possible, but some unwanted material is unavoidable. If the idea of a little sand or seagull poop in your salt is unappetizing, you can easily make your own out of freshly collected seawater.
Take a gallon or so of seawater and pass it through a coffee filter. Bring the water up to a simmer for five minutes (for maximum flavor avoid heating the water and move straight to the next step). Pour the water into ceramic or porcelain pans and dry in a low oven with fan. Once all of the water has evaporated your salt crystals will be ready to collect. You can either leave the crystals in their natural shape or grind them in a mortar and pestle for a finer sea salt.
The process of finding or making salt is extremely gratifying on an elemental level. Fortunately, if you aren’t in the mood to forage for fresh sea salt deposits or haul gallons of ocean water, you can still get great quality local sea salt from a couple of local producers, including Robert Kirkland of Monterey Bay Salt Company and Jessica Baer and Joy Colangelo of Monterey Bay Sea Salt.
John Cox is Executive Chef at Sierra Mar Restaurant at the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur.