Sunday 19 November 2017

Revival of sea salt trade brings in family's salaries

Michael and Aileen O`Neill of O'Neill's Irish Atlantic Sea Salt Flakes pictured at their production facility on the Beara Peninsula, West Cork
Michael and Aileen O`Neill of O'Neill's Irish Atlantic Sea Salt Flakes pictured at their production facility on the Beara Peninsula, West Cork

Tom Prendeville

Back in the Middle Ages Ireland was a huge exporter of sea salt. Indeed, the first historical reference to salt production in Ireland dates back to the 8th century where the hardy Aran Islanders are recorded as having to pay a salt tribute to the King of Cashel.

As the only means of food preservation, salt was always highly prized as a commodity. So much so, that in earlier times Roman soldiers were paid in the precious white grains. Hence the Latin phrase Salarium argentums - which means salary.

At one stage practically every port and inlet in Ireland had a facility for producing sea salt. However, due to a tidal wave of imported salt, production eventually died out in Ireland in the 19th century. Nowadays all of our salt is imported and originates from underground mines.

Where regular salt is a cheap and plentiful commodity; sea salt on the other hand is highly prized because it contains over 80 trace minerals. It also commands a premium price due to the fact that health-conscious shoppers consider it a superfood.

In 2010 Michael and Aileen O'Neill, from West Cork's Beara Peninsula, were interested in setting up a business which could give employment to the family.

After months of searching it dawned on them that the answer was staring them straight in the face: the waves lapping up on the shore outside their window could yield sea salt.

From small beginnings, their Irish Atlantic Sea Salt company has gone on to win a bevy of prestigious international artisan food awards. A commercial success, the sea salt is now selling in supermarket chains all over the country and is used by all of the country's top chefs.

Michael O'Neill takes up the story of how he got into the salt business: "My father passed away three years ago, and at the time I was into shellfish growing. We were producing sea salt crystals which I used to be throwing away, and one day he said to me: 'Why don't you use them for something.'

"I was always making up reasons why I couldn't use them. But I saw a sea salt facility in UK and it caught my interest. It started from there.

"Myself and Michael Cotter later designed a facility to dry out the salt water. It is very sustainable and we use a vacuum process which preserves the texture of the salt crystals - our method is our secret."

"We currently have a range of seven products and at the recent Great Taste Awards in London we received a three gold star award for our Sea Salt with Dill Pollen. We also got a one gold star for our Oak Smoked Salt. We are very pleased. Last year we won four gold stars at the same awards.

"We are now supplying all the major supermarkets, from Tesco to Margraves, plus the high-end restaurants. We are looking to export and are in discussions with distributors in the UK.

"We are also currently in talks to get our products into Harrods and Selfridges," 
added Michael.

Sea water has a salt concentration of 3.5pc with 30,000 litres of sea water producing 100kg of salt.

Unlike commercial rock salt which is drilled from the ground, sea salt is flaky and slightly damp and contains an abundance of trace minerals. Due to its powdery texture sea salt has a distinctive flavour unlike mined salt. Currently the Irish Atlantic Sea Salt facility is producing one ton a week with further plans for expansion.

"Our local Enterprise Board has been very good to us and Bord Bia and Enterprise Ireland have been of enormous help too. We have four employees and hope to grow that and create a few more jobs. Hopefully it can become a nice little industry," added Michael.

The Beara Peninsula business has been such a success that it has inspired similar sea salt ventures around the country, all of them thriving concerns.

Several new sea salt harvesting companies have now sprung up - firms such as Oriel Sea Salt which has a production facility at Clogherhead, Co Louth. The newest entrant is a facility in Keel Bay on the Achill Islands, which was started by the O'Malley family.

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