In 1851, salt from the Kanawha Valley was awarded the world's best salt at the World's Fair in London. Now, more than 160 years later, one of those old salt companies has been revived by brother and sister Nancy Bruns and Lewis Payne. Last weekend, the JQ Dickinson Salt-Works celebrated their 1-year-anniversary. I toured the salt-works and talked with Chef April Hamilton as she prepared food for the salt soiree.
Nancy Bruns is actually a 7th generation salt maker- but she didn't realize the significance of her family until her husband was researching local history for his master's thesis.
"He was looking at the Salt industry, and while I knew the family had been in salt, I didn't know a lot about it.” She was already involved in the culinary food industry, and while she and her husband were learning was learning the industry's past in W.Va, she also began noticing the rising trends in gourmet salt across the country.
“It just struck me as an 'ah-ha' moment: we needed to be making salt again. It just made sense in so many different ways. I called my brother Lewis, I said 'I have an idea for a business, I'd really like you to partner with me and do this.' And he said 'yes', and here we are."
Nancy and her brother Lewis revived their family's 200 year old salt-works. A geologist helped them drill a new pump. They built solar-powered evaporation houses, where the salt crystals take about three weeks to separate from the salty brine.
“I think of salt in a similar way to wine, where you taste the Terroir of what's coming from the ground. So we consider our salt an agricultural product, which is really an expression of the minerals that are in the earth.”
Nancy and her brother are now selling about 500 pounds of salt a month. Chefs from Nashville to Baltimore have begun using it, and restaurants in West Virginia, like Cafe Cimino in Sutton, have begun cooking and serving Dickinson salt too.
Another favorite customer is Chef April Hamilton, who was named a “Food Revolution Hero” by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver for her work helping kids in Kanawha County eat healthier. April says she's been cooking with JQ Dickinson salt exclusively and says the salt has been a huge success for her.
“Those crystals are unique, and they taste incredible. It's hard to describe, but most people who try it, their eyes just light up, and they go, “this is not just salt,it has flavor beyond the flavor of salt. And it's got that texture that you kind of swish it around in your mouth a little bit.”
To help JQ Dickinson celebrate their 1-year-anniversary, April helped prepare a dinner at the farm last week. The food she made was almost exclusively of local ingredients, allowing the natural flavors of the fresh food shine with the simple taste of Dickinson salt. The main course was slow roasted, salt rubbed pork shoulders, which came from Gardner farms in Waverly, West Virginia. The pork was served with a BBQ sauce made of local maple syrup and Smooth Ambler Bourbon.
Many of the other dishes were made from local produce that April collected from farms nearby. She says that with salt, it's about finding the right balance, and paying attention to the subtle flavors. Like this simple salad, made from fresh tomatoes and just a dash of Dickinson salt.
“I'm calling it jewel-box tomato salad. Chad Smith from West Virginia Homegrown Farms has the most delightful, delicious little tomatoes, about the size of a marble. They'll just be rinsed and tossed with olive oil and some JQ Dickinson Salt. I mean, they just burst with flavor and natural sweetness and sunshine. I mean just taste the sunshine, so good.”
And this sunshine bursting flavor is released thanks to salt from an underground ocean that lies beneath the mountains of West Virginia.
Menu: Salty Soiree (for more info, visit Chef April's website )
1. Salt Rubbed Pulled Pork with Cracklins and Brioche
(Gardner Farms, Smooth Ambler bbq sauce)
2. Caponata with Crostini
(KISRA, Charleston Bread)
3. Carrot Greens Pesto with JQD Ricotta, Crostini
(WV Homegrown Farms, Nancy Bruns)
4. JQ Dickinson Ricotta, Lavender Salted Almonds, WV Honey
(Cucina Luisa, Thistledew Farms)
5. Egg Salad Tea Sandwiches
6. Cucumber Mint Tea Sandwiches
(Gritt’s Farm, WV Homegrown Farms)
7. Roasted Sweet Potato and Butternut Salad
(SCRATCH, Hudson Farms)
8. Jewel Box Tomato Salad
(WV Homegrown Farms, JQD Salt)
9. Salted Caramel Apple Crisp with Salty Caramel Cream (Martinsburg, WV)