Ben Jacobsen sits atop a gleaming, 6,000-gallon food-grade tanker truck, straddling the curving metal like Major Kong riding the bomb in Dr. Strangelove. The fire hose slung over his shoulder shudders as it belches hundreds of gallons of saltwater into the cavern beneath him.
Jacobsen wears his wiry strawberry blond hair tucked under a denim cap shadowing slate gray eyes and a mischievous, freckle-spattered grin hidden beneath his scruff. His truck sports its name—“Night Moves,” after the 1976 Bob Seger hit—in yellow script atop the shamrock green door. This pairing hardly seems like a partnership for delivering a gourmet condiment to some of America’s greatest chefs. But an hour later, Jacobsen shuts the valve, hops into his van, and, tailed by Night Moves, chugs to an equally unlikely third partner: an old oyster farm on the edge of Netarts Bay, its weathered hull littered with bivalve shells and blanketed in thick moss.
Today is Jacobsen’s first day working at his new salt factory. Four months before, he harvested a holding tank full of ocean when the summer sun leaves the water at its most salinated. Here at the oyster farm, he will filter, boil, and dehydrate it until all that’s left are the flaky crystals regarded by many a chef and foodie as America’s first great finishing salt.
April Bloomfield uses Jacobsen Salt at her Michelin-rated New York restaurant the Spotted Pig. So does Chris Cosentino, at his celebrated Incanto in San Francisco. The salt is a proudly listed ingredient for award-winning chocolatier Xocolatl de David. A four-ounce bag of these crystals sells in gourmet shops and more discerning supermarkets for $10.
Nine years ago, Jacobsen was happily spicing his food with bland granules of Morton. Now, at 37, he is a gourmet entrepreneur determined to become the best, biggest, and most famous artisan salt producer in the United States. The tank of ocean water, the old oyster farm, and Night Moves, engine moaning and gears grinding, are all, however shakily, part of the plan.
While hosing the salt residue off of Night Moves’ glossy exterior, a renegade spray arcs into the top hatch and plunks into the metal cavern within—seemingly just a drop in the ocean. But fearful of the fragile balance of salt, mineral, and water suspended in his precious cargo, Jacobsen covers his face in his hands. “Fuck,” he grumbles. “That’s gonna screw up everything.”
Jacobsen openly despises the word “foodie.” During an itinerant childhood, he grew up eating his Arkansas-born mother’s shrimp and grits, collard greens, and black-eyed peas. His path to haute cuisine was narrow: it started in 2004, when, while he was a starving MBA student in Copenhagen, his Danish girlfriend brought home a 60 kroner (about $10) sack of Scandinavian flake salt. Sticker shock quickly melted into astonishment as the briny flakes dissolved on the back of his tongue. “It was incredible to me how such a simple element—a single ingredient—could transform a whole dish,” he explains.
Jacobsen began sprinkling fleur de sel on everything he ate, from oatmeal to Frikadeller (Danish meatballs) and Flæskesteg (pork roast covered in cracklings). By 2006, as head of global marketing in Norway for Opera Software’s billion-dollar web-browsing empire, his growing obsession had him religiously packing a few ounces of good sea salt in his carry-on for his weekly flights across the globe. “The TSA never stopped me,” he recalls, “and it made the food I was eating that much better.” He even became a collector, archiving everything from coarse octagonal rocks of sel gris to paper-thin sheets of fleur de sel from South Africa, Greece, Mexico, the UK, and Canada. (For a guide to sea salts, see page 3)
In 2008, Jacobsen moved to Portland to join his future wife, Cara, and work on a mobile-app start-up that he imagined would transform Apple’s vast application market into a social media platform. As that company sucked up his savings in the Great Recession, he began taking trips to the Oregon Coast. One day in 2009, sluicing through the calm waters of Netarts Bay, a chain-linked crab pot balanced precariously on the bow of his 14-foot sky blue kayak, he got an idea. He paddled back to shore, crushed his Rainier tallboy on a rock, and waded back into the shallows, filling his three-gallon water bottle with crisp Netarts Bay water. Back home in his drafty 1917 Northwest Portland Craftsman house, Jacobsen dumped its contents into a stockpot. “How hard can this be?” he thought to himself, cranking the gas and walking away as seawater bubbled at full bore. Four hours later, the kitchen was a wreck: thick splotches of salt plastering the walls, the pot rusted and pitted, and his “salt” a bitter, amorphous blob of yellowish sludge. “Man, that was really bad salt,” Jacobsen remembers. “But I was infatuated on a primal level.... I had created something out of nothing, just fire and water—it was elemental.”
Jacobsen is not the first person to make salt on the Oregon Coast. In 1806, American pioneers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, at the end of their two-year expedition, famously returned with 28 gallons of “excellent, fine, strong, white salt” for meat preservation. (For Jacobsen, the annual Salt Makers Living History, a costumed reenactment of Lewis & Clark’s early salt experiments near Seaside, is a constant reminder of untapped potential.) Browse any gourmet market and you’ll find salts with similarly historic roots: fleur de sel from Brittany, flor de sal from Portugal, and, most famously, Maldon Sea Salt from Essex, 40 miles northeast of London, which churns out geometric pyramids prized by chefs worldwide. The Pacific Northwest and England share similar latitudes and a stormy, cool maritime climate. But Netarts Bay has an advantage: each tidal shift cleanses the bay with 85 percent new water, which is further naturally purified by millions of oysters farmed and growing wild. Just as Oregon’s early wine growers saw Burgundy in the Willamette Valley, Jacobsen saw Maldon on the Oregon Coast.
Mark Bitterman is widely considered to be America’s foremost salt expert. A self-described selmelier, his area of expertise is meroir—coined by seafood connoisseurs after wine’s “taste of the land,” or terroir, but with mer, for “sea.” A New York native, Bitterman owns the Meadow, a celebrated gourmet salt emporium with locations on N Mississippi Avenue and in Manhattan’s tony West Village. But among the 120 salts that line his shops’ shelves, there is, he notes, no great American finishing salt. Worldwide industrialization in the late 1800s, Bitterman explains, transformed a coveted resource that was once refined by countless small-batch, centuries-old salt dynasties into the leftovers of a giant economy of scale. Today an estimated 97 percent of salt is made for de-icing and chemical and industrial manufacturing. The remaining 3 percent is packaged for food. Offering an analogy, Bitterman says, “Imagine if all the cheese in the world—all those beautiful Robuchons and Tomme de Savoies and Roqueforts—became Velveeta.” It wasn’t until the 1980s, in a last-ditch effort to save their epicurean tradition, that the paludiers (salt makers) in northern France successfully pushed for government regulations to revive and protect artisan salt. It was the paludiers’ marketing strategy, selling their culturally rich, mineral-laden fleur de sel and sel gris in Paris’s hottest restaurants and to gourmet importers here, that led some American palates to get finicky about their salt, too.
There is no one tried-and-true formula for making sea salt, but the ultimate goal is to capture the essence of the region through painstaking experimentation with time and temperature. Every salt maker carefully guards his own formula, but each must follow a basic blueprint, whether raked by hand off saltwater basins or scooped by machine in a factory. Step one: filtration. Ocean water is purified by allowing the organic matter to settle on the bottom of a basin, or by mechanical filtration through a system of fine-meshed sieves. Step two: pre-evaporation. Purified (typically 3.5 percent) saltwater is reduced to a 5 percent brine, with the undesirable minerals and nitrates crystallized out of the saline equation. Step three: evaporation. The brine is slowly evaporated over super-low temperatures, crystallizing into lace-edged crusts over the course of weeks in the coastal basins in Guérande, Brittany, or for hours in Jacobsen’s industrial evaporation trays on Netarts Bay.
The best salt, Bitterman explains, is one that respects food. “You would never put sel gris on a salad. It’s chunky, robust, and persistent. It would punch through the lettuce, taste too intense, last too long. Likewise, you would never put a flake salt on a steak. It would be a bright, quick spark of flavor, and then—poof—gone. You’d be chewing on unseasoned steak. Salts can be round, warm, and rich, or sweet, bright, and bold, or pungent, mineral, and oceanic. But no matter what, it’s gotta showcase the meroir.”