By Gregg Bragg, The Island Connection Staff Writer
Photos by Bertha Booker
“Take it with a grain of salt,” is a familiar expression with a history dating to ancient Rome. Pliney The Elder (AD 23-79) said “addito salis grano,” as part of a recipe for an antidote to poison in his book “Naturalis Historia.”
Some say the Romans thought salt was a preventative for poison, while others claim Roman General Pompey took small amounts of poison to improve his odds of surviving assassination, and masked the taste with salt. History, for all its lessons, doesn’t provide a solution for those times you forget a shaker. Problems like those require the common sense wisdom of Lowcountry natives like Bertha Booker.
“I was on an overnight kayaking trip several years ago. When I stopped to make camp, I realized I had forgotten to pack salt. So, I made some by boiling sea water. It was a bit briny but it got the job done.” Booker’s solution was clever enough, but it was also serendipitous. Booker found herself at an intersection with more cross-streets than the Rue D’ Etoile.
The kayak trip took place near Botany Bay Island, which is much smaller than it was in 1724. According to Booker, Huguenot colonist William Mellichamp owned it at the time, and it was large enough to house the Southeast’s first salt works.
Maybe history was in the air or maybe she was inspired by the advent of the “local, artisanal food” movement, but making salt there makes perfect sense when you think about it.
Voila, the idea of making salt on a grander scale was born. Boiling off excess water didn’t cut it though.
The process of making salt that doesn’t taste of fish involves collecting sea water and pouring it into shallow, enclosed “salt ponds.” Wind and sunshine take a turn, the water slowly evaporates, and the sodium chloride crystals begin to form.
Although there are some residual minerals like potassium, magnesium, and even gold on the outside of the crystals, a quick rinse takes care of them while leaving the product intact. Booker insists on using water from Botany Bay as an emphatic, moral prerogative. It is the name of her company, sure, but she said she would use Botany Bay water from the start, and intends to make good on the promise as a measure of integrity. Turns out, the water there is particularly pure, too. Murky South Carolina water is particularly clean, once free of sediment, says Booker.
Although some competitors went straight to market, Booker took the time and attention required to get permission instead of forgiveness. Her tenacity paid off and she says Botany Bay has, once again, become “The (officially licensed) Southeast’s First Salt Works,” says her tag line. The symmetry of repeating history without the condemnation is appreciated by her fellow sea-islanders.
Booker is still working on a website, but boasts nearly 600 people following her progress on Facebook.
“I work locally with Charlestonians and Johns Islanders who appreciate the area’s history. I sell primarily at the farmers’ market and have many customers who are incredibly devoted to my salts simply because they love the amazing flaky texture and unique custom packaging.” The flaky texture she mentions is actually a disguised way of reducing sodium intake.
The first of Booker’s two products is a “finishing” salt. The flaky white shavings are added after cooking. Because of their texture, less can be used to accomplish a delicate flavor without screaming SALT, while adding that little something professional chefs don’t like telling you about. Her second offering is a smoked salt. The rich brown flakes get their color after 48 hours in close quarters with smoldering hickory, pecan, both anchored by South Carolina Live Oak.
The resulting salt adds something area chefs are just discovering. Booker is a one woman band doing all of this by herself, including the packaging.
Pot-bellied bowls of salt with designer labels she makes at home on parchment that make you feel as cozy as being in your grandmother’s pantry. She’ll be at the Johns Island farmers’ market all summer, and may expand to Freshfields. Put some Botany Bay salt on everything, just in case.Tweet