By Shuan Butcher
Some of the world’s best chefs swear by the cooking salts offered by a small, historic salt-mining facility in Malden, W.Va.
In 1817, Nancy Bruns’ ancestors started drilling for brine in the Kanawha River Valley in what was then Virginia (now West Virginia). Seven generations later, she and her brother, Lewis Payne, picked up where the salt-making family left off.
At J.Q. Dickinson Salt Works, in Malden, W.Va., salt is once again being produced on the same land where the Dickinson family garnered it 200 years ago. In the past, the end use of the salt was primarily industrial; today it is an agricultural product. The high-quality artisanal salt seasons and finishes everything from grilled steak to salmon to popcorn.
This is not your ordinary table salt. Harvested naturally by hand, the product hails from an ancient sea under the Appalachian Mountains. Rich in minerals with no additional preservatives or artificial additives, their salt truly reminds you of the purity of the earth. Some bestsellers are cooking salts, such as heirloom, smoked or ramp, but the salt grinders and popcorn salt are great, too.
To produce the salt, brine comes out of the ground, where it is poured into beds that are essentially located inside greenhouses. The sun then takes over the process, evaporating the water until the only thing left is a crystal-white salt. From start to finish, a batch can take from one to three months, depending on Mother Nature. The season typically runs from April to November, contingent, again, on weather.
Tours are offered at the Malden facility, providing a firsthand opportunity to see how salt is harvested. You can see the actual drilling unit and greenhouses, and you can also check out the ruins of the early equipment used long ago.
In one structure, which Nancy hopes to turn into a museum, you can view an old (and empty) built-in safe, orders, machinery, and other paraphernalia. The onsite retail store at J.Q. Dickinson sells a number of other items that feature salt, including soap, body butter, peanuts and granola. And you can purchase liquid nigari, the byproduct from harvested salt.
If you aren’t traveling to Southern West Virginia anytime soon, don’t fret. J.Q. Dickinson salts can be purchased in retail outlets, boutique shops, and farm stores from Maine to California. In addition, some of the best chefs in the country use the salt in their restaurants.