Natalie Crayton must be pinching herself, as the ocean outside her front door has washed up a thriving family business
IT’S ONE of those ideas so simple in its genius you wish you’d thought of it yourself. But you didn’t, because Natalie Crayton got there first, in launching the country’s first gourmet sea salt harvested from the natural bounty to be found on the Isle of Lewis, right outside her own front door. Using nothing more than the waters of the Atlantic Ocean that hurls itself on to the Hebridean island’s shoreline, she has set up a business that not only secures a living for her family, it also has the potential to provide employment for others, something not to be sniffed at in further flung parts where economic survival is a struggle.
The former marine biologist from Edinburgh fell in love with the Hebri-dean archipelago when she visited Tiree on holiday over a decade ago. It wasn’t just the long white, sandy beaches and endless seascapes she fell in love with but William, a lobster and crab fisherman from Lochgilphead, and after her three-month summer break she decided to go back and set up home. Three children later, the couple have sunk their all into the venture that chimes perfectly with the current trend for artisanal products.
In its smart blue and white packaging, Hebridean Sea Salt does exactly what it says on the box: “Sea salt flakes harvested from the shores of the remote Scottish Hebridean Isle of Lewis.” Anything raw, pure, fresh and simple is the new holy grail in the food world as we go back to our roots and search for unadulterated products from our own backyard that deliver not only on quality, but are untainted by guilt-inducing air miles and complicated production processes.
Crayton’s hand-gathered salt crystals catch the wave of this trend among consumers, and are fast becoming the condiment of choice for chefs, posh delis and restaurants who want a local alternative to the big-name premium brands.
Now 30 and mother to two boys and a girl under six, Crayton is based on the east of Lewis in Habost, South Lochs, and manages to combine parenting with her new enterprise. Her three small assistants often join her as she collects water from nearby Loch Erisort before taking it back to the drying plant she has set up next to the family home. Her marine biology expertise comes in handy too. “I suppose I use it when I’m making sure it’s the right time of day to harvest with the tides and that there’s no algae in the water,” she says.
Crayton is confident her sea salt is a match for Cornish and Maldon sea salt on the market thanks to the remote location. “There’s no pollution and the water is crystal clear. There are few waves at Loch Erisort because it’s a sea loch and a bit sheltered, so it’s flat calm. It’s perfect water. At the moment we collect two tonnes a day, which isn’t a lot, and we are still very small. We were really just testing the market but it’s taken off and become a 24-hour operation, so I’m hoping to move on to something bigger. We are producing 20kg a day but I want to build a facility that will produce 250kg a day and I want to pipe the water in instead of having to collect it,” she says.
It’s not just the Crayton’s baby either: friends and neighbours in South Lochs are involved in getting the venture off the ground.
“A lot of people in the community are pitching in and helping because there’s not really any industry on Lewis and everyone has to drive 30 miles to Stornoway and back every day for work. We’re hoping that in the first year we will be able to take on five to six people, which for somewhere like this, is good.”
Crayton’s light bulb moment occurred when she was a stay-at-home mum, and came across an article on Cornish sea salt. The former sales and marketing executive, who has a degree in marine resource management from Aberdeen University, simply couldn’t believe there wasn’t a Scottish version.
“I tried to source some Scottish sea salt to use in my baking but nobody was producing it commercially. The only place in Scotland that has done sea salt is Prestonpans and that ended 100 years ago. So I decided to see if I could do it myself. We were living on Tiree for ten years and I thought I would set it up there, but it’s too small for sea salt to grow and it wouldn’t work so we moved to Lewis.
“I thought it would be a way for my partner to get out of fishing because that’s very hard – he’s sailing his boat over this week to base it here – and it’s snowballed, although it’s a lot of hard work. Raising the funds was difficult, but otherwise it’s been pretty plain sailing.”
Backing has been secured from a variety of bodies, including Highlands & Islands Enterprise, the Western Isles Council and the Technology Strategy Board, Scotland Food & Drink and the Prince’s Youth Business Trust, and the salt is winning shelf space in the likes of Peckham’s, Valvona and Crolla, Loch Leven’s Larder and Provender Brown in Perth.
Chefs such as Suzanne O’Connor at the National Gallery Restaurant, the Scottish Cafe, in Edinburgh and restaurants such as The Three Chimneys on Skye are using it as foodies learn to appreciate the value of gourmet products.
The naturally occurring crystals, which need very little processing and contain up to 70 trace minerals from the seawater, have given rise to a UK market now worth around £4 million and rising. Crayton has 30 stockists, with another 40 expected by the end of next month.
“You just take sea water and evaporate it,” she says. “We are working on ways that are economically sustainable because you could use up a lot of energy drying it. Abroad, they just use the sun, but you’re not going to get that in Lewis.”
However, with global warming and wet summers, the Camargue’s loss could be Lewis’s gain. On health grounds, too, the unadulterated Hebridean waters have an advantage since the mineral content is high. Sea and table salt contain the same amount of sodium chloride, which in small doses is essential for the body to function, but table salt is heavily processed and stripped of its minerals, as well as containing additives to prevent clumping.
“It’s from the Hebrides, it’s pure, there’s a story behind it, and it tastes fantastic,” says Crayton.
Pass the salt, please. n
Hebridean Sea Salt, £3.10 for 150g (01851 880324, www.hebrideanseasalt.co.uk, firstname.lastname@example.org)
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