From her office window, Alison Lea-Wilson can see the Menai Strait – a narrow strip of restless water that separates the island of Anglesey from the mainland. On the opposite shore is Caernarfon Castle, a mediaeval fortress which sits on the edge of this wild, weathered coastline in the shadow of Snowdonia. “I’ve been walking the seafront here for over 40 years,” Alison says. “It’s a constant: I couldn’t bear not to do it.”
Alison and her husband, David, co-founded Halen Môn (literally, Anglesey Salt) in 1997. The couple met at Bangor University. As students, they set up an aquarium that showcased the wide variety of marine life found around the island. “We’ve always made our living from the sea,” Alison explains. “We started by growing oysters, then we became fish merchants, then we had the sea zoo.” In a search of an alternate business, they filled a saucepan with water drawn from the Menai Strait and let it simmer on their Aga at home. “Lo and behold, we were left with salt in the bottom of the pan,” Alison recalls. “It was more of a sludge, really – but that’s how the company originated.”
They employed a chemistry student to explain the science behind creating consistent crystals. “What we wanted was a flake that wasn't too crumbly,” explains Alison. “And that's basically what we've ended up with – a clear, bright finishing salt.” Halen Môn received Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status in 2014: “It’s like having a form of immortality,” Alison says. “While there is still someone making Halen Môn Anglesey Sea Salt in the same place, by the same method, that name will continue.”
The crystals are the result of an alchemical process that takes place in a saltcote on the edge of the Menai Strait. The exceptionally pure waters are filtered naturally, passing through both a mussel bed and a sandbank before they are pumped to shore. Once on land, the water is carbon filtered before being gently heated to form a brine. The brine then flows into crystallisation tanks heated by gas lamps. “That’s where the magic happens,” says Alison. “You can literally watch the crystals forming in real time.”
Uniquely, once the crystals have formed, they are rinsed in brine in order to remove any trace of chalky calcium carbonate. The bright and shiny crystals are then dried and harvested by hand. “The harvesters know when the salt is ready because it makes a lovely crisp, crunchy sound – like you’re walking on fresh snow,” Alison explains.
Sustainability is integral to this family-run business. “I don’t remember using that word in the beginning,” says daughter Jess Lea-Wilson, who works part-time for Halen Môn, along with her brothers, Hamish and Jake. “We’ve always treated our resources as precious.”
With support from the Welsh government, they are applying for B-Corp status, which they see as a way of formalising their existing ethos. “We have always tried to be as sustainable as possible, but we’re really stepping that up now,” adds Alison. All of the packaging is made from compostable, plant-based plastics or FSC-certified cardboard and they are currently researching renewable energy sources. “We're looking at installing our own wind turbines,” says Alison, “although that will present its own challenges.”
Anglesey’s storybook coastline was designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the late ’60s – a restriction they “work within.” “It’s unbelievably, atmospherically beautiful here, but island life is not without its difficulties,” Jess admits. “We are really exposed here, so whilst we might have back-lit mountains and magical sea views, we also have power cuts and 40mph winds. Flooding has become more frequent and – when the tide is exceptionally high – our road can be completely cut off.”
The family’s deep-seated love of food has culminated in the publishing of Sea Salt: A Perfectly Seasoned Cookbook, which places salt at the centre of the table. “Salt is the single most important ingredient in the kitchen,” the introduction states: “A crisp and tender chicken Caesar salad bound together by a balanced, umami dressing; a bright and fresh margarita, each sip leaving salt on your lips; delicate fritto misto, coated in seasoned batter and finished with flakes of sea salt are all impossible to imagine left unsalted.”
Below, they share their family recipe for Welsh-inflected focaccia. “We’re a bit obsessed with focaccia in this house,” Jess admits. Much like salt, “it just makes most meals better.”
Caramelised Leek and Thyme Focaccia
Our focaccia takes on more of a Welsh flavour than an Italian one, with the addition of perfectly caramelised leeks and the scent of thyme. The method here, using a brine, is a technique we have borrowed from the ever-brilliant American chef and author, Samin Nosrat, as it gives the bread a wonderful crispy top and a generous rise. This recipe uses the whole leek, so don’t discard the tops. They tend to hold their shape better than the creamier white base of the leek, making for a lovely contrast of textures.
For the dough
650ml/22fl oz lukewarm water
¾ tsp fast- action dried yeast
1 tbsp caster sugar
775g/1lb 11oz strong white bread flour
1½ tbsp finer flaked sea salt
60ml/2fl oz extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
2 tbsp butter, for greasing
3 thyme sprigs, leaves picked
½ tsp flaked sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
For the brine
75ml/2½fl oz lukewarm water
1½ tsp finer flaked sea salt
For the leeks
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
3 leeks (about 350g/12¼oz), sliced into 1cm/½in rounds
½ tsp finer flaked sea salt
¹⁄8 whole nutmeg, grated
Start by preparing the dough. Mix the water, yeast and sugar together in a large jug until the yeast has dissolved, then leave for about 10 minutes, or until the mixture is bubbly. Mix the flour and salt together in a large bowl to combine. Make a well in the centre and pour in the yeast mixture and oil. Use a spatula to mix everything together until the dough is uniform and no dry patches are visible. Cover the bowl with a clean, dry tea towel and leave at room temperature overnight or for 14–16 hours until the dough has doubled in size and small holes are visible on the surface.
The next day, grease the base and sides of a 26 x 36cm/10½ x 14in baking dish with the butter. Prepare the brine by mixing the water and salt together in a bowl until the salt dissolves. Pour the dough into the centre of the greased dish and use clean hands to stretch the dough into all four corners. It’s a slightly sticky job as the dough is much wetter than a standard loaf. When the dough is stretched, use your fingers to poke dimples all over the surface and pour over a generous glug (about 2 tablespoons) of the oil. Pour the brine over the surface too. Cover and leave to prove at room temperature for another hour.
Preheat the oven to 220°C/200°C fan/425°F/Gas 7 and place a pizza stone or baking sheet on the middle shelf to heat up.
Meanwhile, make a start on the leeks. Heat the oil in a large frying pan over a medium-high heat for a minute. Add the leeks and the salt and fry, stirring occasionally, for 8 minutes until the leeks are completely soft, vibrant and there is almost no liquid left in the pan, taking care not to let the leeks take on too much colour as they cook. Reduce the heat to low and cook for another 8 minutes, or until the leeks are beginning to turn golden in places and are completely soft. Remove from the heat and grate over the nutmeg.
Dimple the focaccia dough again with clean fingers and use a spoon to dot the cooked leeks over the top. Scatter the thyme leaves over the surface of the dough, then finish with a generous grind of black pepper and the flaked salt over the top.
Bake in the centre of the oven for 20 minutes, or until risen. Check the focaccia after this time; if the leeks look as though they are beginning to catch and burn, cover with foil and pierce all over with a sharp knife to allow the steam to escape and the bread to crisp up. Cook for another 15–18 minutes until deep golden and crisp on the surface. Tap the base of the pan to check that it sounds hollow – this is a sign that the bread is airy and cooked through. Remove from the heat and drizzle or brush with a generous glug of olive oil (about 2 tablespoons). The surface will look oily, but the bread will absorb the oil as it cools. Leave the focaccia to cool in the tin for 10 minutes before using two sturdy cake slices or spatulas to release all four edges and lift onto a wire rack.
Eat warm or at room temperature. The focaccia is best eaten the day it is cooked, but can be frozen in a sealed bag, wrapped in baking paper, or stored like this at room temperature and gently reheated in a hot oven for 8 minutes to refresh.
Interview by Nell Card.
Photographs by Maria Bell.
The Halen Môn cookbook Sea Salt by the Lea-Wilson Family is available now.