A local man risks life and limb to make seriously inspired salts
The pools are all hidden down
winding trails cut into the
dramatic hillsides of Big Sur’s
PHOTOGRAPHY BY CRYSTAL BIRNS
As the winter swells were starting to tower, Carlo Overhulser sat at the edge of a cliff near Las Piedras Canyon in Big Sur. He had been in a funk for some time—recently unemployed after the closure of a restaurant where he had been cooking and figuring out his next steps. It was November 2015 and from his home in Monterey he would venture down to Big Sur to hike, clear his head and enjoy a beer while perched on the rocks.
Watching the fishermen, lost in thought, Overhulser was too slow to dodge a massive wave that came up and completely washed over him, drenching him from head to toe. But he felt rejuvenated, as if the ocean was giving him a friendly smack in the face. He saved his beer bottle, by then full of seawater, as a memento. It was weeks later that he accidentally knocked over the bottle and found the water had evaporated and left behind a pile of salt crystals. “It sounds crazy,” he says with a laugh as he reflects on his company’s origins, “but since that day my entire life has been about salt.”
Through a process of trial and error, Overhulser started to build a business and by March of 2016 had established Big Sur Salts. To start, Overhulser—something of a renaissance man, having worked variously as a musician and sound engineer as well as a cook—conducted tests all over the Monterey Bay. Not surprising, the seawater from the pristine Big Sur coast was the highest in quality, with a purity and clarity akin to Himalayan sea salt. Harvesting in Big Sur also meant he could collect the seawater he needed to make his salts from the cliffs, avoiding the need to take a boat offshore a few miles to find similar quality.
Overhulser forages naturally crystalized salt from the cliffs, but the bulk of Big Sur Salts’ production comes from harvesting seawater and processing it in a commercial kitchen. In the beginning, this meant hiking down jagged rocks with a backpack full of beer growlers to fill up and then running back up to his truck, many times over. “I was just this lunatic standing out here with a growler tied to a PVC pipe,” Overhulser says. He was trying to figure out a legal and responsible way to harvest from the cliffs and coast when he discovered UC Davis’ Marine Pollution Studies Laboratory at Granite Canyon in Big Sur.
Since Granite Canyon already had a permit with the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, Overhulser was able to streamline his process by harvesting most of his water directly from the lab.
Every day, Granite Canyon takes in 50,000 gallons of water which it filters, tests and then expels back into sea. Overhulser goes down twice a week with two 55-gallon drums and draws water that has already been filtered three times. He adds an additional two layers of filtering before boiling it down to produce three styles of salt—fine, coarse and flake—most of which he transforms into fragrant and beautiful herbal blends.
“The blends began with foraging,” Overhulser explains. “I wanted to do everything as hyperlocal as possible. I strongly believe that what grows together goes together.” An early blend called Lily Valley, for example, contained salt, mustard flowers, wild radish flowers and chamise all harvested from within 200 yards of each other. “Due to health regulations, the foraging of herbs and produce had to stop, but the concept is the same. I can source flowers, herbs and produce through local farms and get the same desired effect.”
Overhulser has produced about 45 different salt blends, some of which are exclusive to retail locations and businesses, like the blend he made for the Hyatt Carmel Highlands’ 100th anniversary party, which contained juniper berries, Spanish lavender and rosemary foraged from the resort’s property. “The inspiration comes largely from my environment and trying to capture the essence of Big Sur,” he says. Overhulser’s favorite blend, Old Coast Canyon, is named after the road that winds through canyons behind Big Sur. “Sage, leek, thyme, sour orange peel—when I smell this blend, I’m smelling the experience of that drive.”
There’s also a series of what he calls “wild salt,” experimental blends infused with wine or liqueurs and even Burn Hot Sauce, for which salt is dissolved in the liquid and then dried again.
Blends and plain salt can be purchased at specialty shops and tasting rooms throughout the Monterey Bay area—Quail & Olive, Mountain Feed, Big Sur Bakery and Cima Collina—or from the recently launched Big Sur Salts online store. A 3.5-ounce jar is priced at $20, but with the strong aromatics and quality of the salt, a little goes a long way. My preferred blend, O-M-Chi, a harmonious combination of housemade kimchi, radishes, scallions, and Monterey Bay Seaweeds dulse, has found its way into all of my meals, one pinch at a time.
“I love the textures and colors and smells of all the blends. They match the rugged landscape of Big Sur and allow me to showcase so many other amazing producers in the Monterey Bay,” he says.
I met Overhulser at Monastery Beach in Carmel on a crisp October morning. The sea was calm and the sky was hazy from the recent wild fires to the north. We spent the morning traveling down the coast to forage at a few of his favorite locations. The cliff salt he harvests is entirely a passion project, a way to stay connected to the ruggedness and wildness of Big Sur. Harvesting approximately 300 pounds a year of wild salt, he eventually made the decision to not sell that product and instead give it to local chefs.
“The cliff salt belongs to us, the community,” he explains. “I’m not able to harvest enough to make a real profit off it, but it’s more than that. Nature gave us this. And it’s personal, it’s where everything started for me—it’s a huge part of the story of Big Sur Salts.”
Overhulser foraging in Big Sur
The optimal time to harvest cliff salt is during the coast’s warmer months—spring and fall. Spring harvests can be less labor intensive since the cliffs have had a season of large swells to fill up the pools carved into the rocks. Throughout the summer months, if the swells are too small to fill the pools, Overhulser will manually fill them with buckets of saltwater he gets by climbing down the cliffs. If it’s a season of heavy rain or fog that dilutes the pools he’s monitoring, he’ll replace some of the water with harvested saltwater to help boost salinity.
Of the three locations we visited, only one was ready for harvest, and even then, Overhulser explained, it would be another two weeks until the pool had fully evaporated. We were able to collect 5 pounds of salt that day, whereas an optimal harvest would be 25 pounds from the same pool. Overhulser also explained that because we were pulling from the pool a little prematurely, we were mostly going to get flake salt. In a couple of weeks he would harvest a dense, hard glass salt that can be broken into a coarse texture. “This entire thing is about timing and patience—it’s taught me a lot and has of course carried through to other parts of my life.”
It’s clear why Overhulser has kept the foraging central to the company even without profiting from the labor—the whole experience was a magical adventure. The pools are all hidden down winding trails cut into the dramatic hillsides of Big Sur’s rugged coastline. In October, autumn-hued ice plants dotted the landscape; in spring, blooming flowers will transform the entire coast.
When a pool is ready for harvest the surface looks like a sheet of crystallized ice—like the first layer on a winter pond. With just a bucket, strainer, gloves and a sandcastle shovel, he scrapes off layers of salt. The pieces range in size from that of a thumbnail to a whole outstretched palm. I held up salt crystals we harvested to the sun and marveled at how delicate yet strong they seemed, a piece of frosted glass that
made the Big Sur coastline look like a blurred image. “Down here, nature really runs everything,” Overhulser reflected as we packed up our haul. “I’m just the steward of it.”
Months after foraging, we reconvene at Il Grillo in Carmel where executive chef Quinn Thompson is preparing some salt-centric dishes to showcase several different blends. Overhulser has had strong working relationships with local chefs since the beginning of his venture.
Thompson, formerly the sous chef at Sierra Mar at Post Ranch Inn, was the first chef to try the cliff salt after Overhulser left a sample in his mailbox.
“The alignment with chefs is key,” Overhulser explains. “I love to see the whole story and know how my product is being used. It’s important to me to know the chef, know our philosophies match and be open to their wants and needs.”
“Carlo is definitely a collaborator,” adds Thompson in the Il Grillo kitchen. “He’s like minded and he’s doing us a service that we would love to be doing ourselves if we had the time.” Thompson, whose family came to Big Sur in the mid-1800s to mine gold (the Plasketts of the eponymous Plaskett Creek), grew up with stories of foraging in the woods and waters of Big Sur and is drawn to the adventurous spirit of Big Sur Salts. “I feel strongly about showcasing the salt for what it is, and not just have it drown in my food.”
Il Grillo chef Quinn Thompson and the Crispy Garbanzo Battered
Romanesco and steak he prepares with salts from Big Sur Salts
Although chefs mostly purchase Overhulser’s plain salt or the Pico Blanco finishing salt, today Thompson is playing with a series of blends: Old Coast Canyon; Tassafari (a colorful blend with red, green and yellow bell peppers, black peppercorn, garlic, lemon and lime); fruit forward Santa Lucia Highlands blend (Scheid Vineyards’ Triple Layer Red with raspberries, blackberries and coriander); and Elote, a smoky/spicy blend featuring chipotle peppers, lime zest, cilantro and garlic.
Thompson starts with a crudité plate of crisp and pungent vegetables (fennel, watermelon and Easter egg radishes, Tokyo turnips, mustard leaves and fennel flowers) to see how the intense aromatics of the dish play with the flavors of the Tassafari salt blend. The salt absorbs a generous pour of olive oil, creating a rich, herbaceous paste that complements, but does not overpower.
A beautifully marbled bistro-cut steak is cooked in an unapologetically simple manner—seared with butter and herbs and served sliced on a cutting board with the various salt blends for a choose-your-own adventure. Of course, I try all the combinations and the result is four completely different steaks, the flavor profiles of each blend making distinctly bold statements.
Thompson ends the tasting with chickpea-battered Romanesco, typical of the small plates he likes to feature at Il Grillo. Both the batter and finished product are seasoned with the Old Coast Canyon— the sage, leek and thyme adding subtle herbal notes to the dish. Although the vegetable is fried, the result is very delicate—tender Romanesco in a pillowy batter with a slight crunch—and I’m impressed by how well the flavors of a very aromatic blend are tempered by the other ingredients.
“If I’m going to introduce this business to a larger clientele, chefs are going to be the way to do that,” Overhulser insists.
Monterey Bay Aquarium executive chef Matthew Beaudin was the first to buy in bulk immediately after Overhulser established his company and has harvested with him on several occasions. He loves how those experiences deepen the connection with the food he’s serving, “There’s a story behind our salt!” Beaudin exclaimed. “That’s so incredible! Out on those cliffs, the guy is literally risking his life for salt!
We’re not just purchasing the product—we’re purchasing a partnership. Big Sur Salts is part of our family, and so is his story.”
For Overhulser, sharing his story is sharing his love for the wild beauty of Big Sur. On the day we harvested I noticed that he marked many of his pools with a heart-shaped rock. “The first place I found salt the pool was heart shaped, so I started marking them all that way,” he says with a shrug. “Big Sur gave love to me, so I try and give it back.”