The Story of Icelandic Flake Sea Salt

The Story of Icelandic Flake Sea Salt

Saltverk Map of Iceland The Reykjanes peninsula, where Icelandic Flake is made, is in the north-west corner of Iceland. Click for a full-size map. The Reykianes peninsula.

Icelandic Flake salt is perhaps the world’s only artisan salt produced with 100% geothermal energy, and one of the best flake salts available anywhere to boot, making it the flake salt of choice for consumers looking for excellent salt made in an environmentally sustainable way.

In 2011, three self-described “foodies” and graduate students, Bjorn Steinar Jonsson, Yngvi Eiriksson, and Garðar Stefansson, took the research that culminated in a pair of Master’s degrees (economics and engineering), and reestablished the 240-year-old tradition of salt making in Iceland. Garðar says that the company “embodies calmness reminiscent of the location of its tranquil production surroundings” and “contains the flavor and taste of the Nordic region, from which the raw materials are derived.”

“There is no turning back, simply because we love food,” says Garðar. “We are utterly fascinated and passionate in crafting sustainable salt that fits every dish and tastes great.”

Their energy and passion have culminated in a superbly crunchy, mineral-fresh sea salt produced using only energy from geothermal hot springs – Icelandic Flake Sea Salt. It is a crackling-sparkling topping on hamburgers, hearty garden vegetable dishes, and grilled fish. Saltverk is located in the northwest corner of Iceland on a small peninsula called Reykjanes. “The word Reykjanes is based on two Icelandic words,” says Garðar. “One is ‘reykur,’ which translates into smoke. The other word is ‘nes,’ which translates as small peninsula. Literally, the name means ‘smoky peninsula’(the capital of Iceland, Reykjavík, means “smoky cove”. Reykjanes teeming with wildlife, whales, seals, and birds is located deep in the bay of Ísafjarðardjúp, separating two fjords, surrounded with high mountains.

Reykjanes is punctuated by geysers and hot springs that lie on the peninsula, which in turn provide the energy needed to evaporate sea water and make salt. “Reykjanes has some of the cleanest seawater imaginable, the raw material used for making sea salt, where the North Arctic Ocean stream goes down the bay of Isafjardardjup.”

Garðar describes their inspiration for making salt: “We were all in Denmark when the idea came to exist. Being foodies and fans of the local Nordic produce, we were kind of shocked that in Iceland, a small island surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, there wasn’t any artisan salt being made. Being aware of Iceland’s uniqueness and nature we were kind of fascinated by the idea of making sea salt in Iceland.”

“We seized the opportunity and used the subject of salt making as a Master’s thesis that resulted in the discovery of Reykjanes and the historic geyser salt making method. For us salt is one of the most interesting substances there is and to work with it as entrepreneurs we have discovered a way of living that we are addicted to, a kind of life-style we can’t imagine our lives without.”

Salt Making in Iceland

Danish blueprints of old saltworks Blueprints of the original saltworks in Reykjanes, built by the Danish King Christian VII, who ruled Iceland at the time. Click to see full-size image.

Salt has been made in Iceland since humans discovered the island in the 9th century C.E. “The Viking method involved burning seaweed to make salt called black salt,” says Garðar.

In 1770, Icelanders in Reykjanes started making salt using new methods imported from Nordic and southern European countries. The Danish King Christian VII, who ruled Iceland at the time, wanted there to be more salt produced locally to make salted cod (baccalà) for export to Denmark. “The reason for it being situated in Reykjanes was how close the geysers were to the sea,” says Garðar, “hence it was easier to transfer seawater through pipes towards half-timbered houses, which were placed on the geysers” Saltverk chose the site for much the same reason.

The Danish kingdom shipped pans, wood, calcium and professional saltmakers to Iceland from Norway to help with the construction of the first saltworks in Reykjanes. Once establishd, it produced about 80 tons of salt a year. A blueprint for the original saltworks is on the right (click to expand).

In 1792, the Danish kingdom nearly went bankrupt and couldn't afford to repair the saltworks in Iceland. The locals, however, didn’t let a good thing go to waste and continued to use the original saltworks through the end of the 19th century.

How Icelandic Flake Salt is Made

Icelandic Flake
A plate of mussels with Icelandic Flake salt for finishing.

Rapid evaporation of brine is required to make flake salts. In most parts of the world, this is achieved by concentrating solar heat in a greenhouse or by burning fuel. Boiling fuel to create salt has been done for hundreds of years and has a strong artisan tradition.

Icelandic Flake is made in a two-step process. “We pump the sea-water to open pans where we pre-heat it until it becomes a strong brine, with a salinity level of 17-20%.” The brine is then moved into a second pan, where it is heated further and a flaky sea salt results. “During this whole process we use 206 °F hot geyser water from the hot springs of Reykjanes, in the pre-heating, boiling and drying process of our salt. Geothermal energy is the sole energy source used, which means during our whole process we leave zero carbon footprints on the environment and no CO2 and CH4 emissions.”

“This method was a twist on the Northern European method of open pan salt making where lumber was the main source of energy,” says Garder. “But since there are no woods in Iceland it was impossible to make salt this way - unless another source of energy would be found. This is when the creative idea of using the natural geysers as a source of energy for the salt making was born.”

“The biggest challenge is to get our message out there,” says Garðar. “Though awareness is increasing amongst consumers, most people think that salt is just salt, 100% NaCl to be exact. From the beginning of our quest we have set our mind and focus to underline that our salt isn’t just salt. We emphasize our production method and our history. We want our customers to buy our salt because they enjoy great food and think that salt is the most affordable and essential.”

Recipe: Night-Salted Cod

Night-salted cod is a twist on a baccalà dish popular in Southern Europe. This recipe was prepared for Garðar’s wedding by the chef Bodvar Lemack, and is a perfect dish on a hot summer nights with some refreshing white wine.

Serves 6 – 8 people

Cod

  • 100g (about 3.5 oz) Icelandic Flake salt
  • 50g (about 1 3/4 oz) whole black organic peppercorns
  • 20g (about 3/4 oz) raw sugar
  • 1 kg (about 2 lb) cod

Side Dish

  • 1/2 kg (about 1 lb) celery root
  • 1/2 kg (about 2 cups) cream
  • 70 g (2 1/2 oz) jarred green olives
  • 170 g (6 oz) jarred sun-dried tomatoes in oil
  • 1 tbsp capers
  • 100ml (about 7 tbsp) olive oil.

To make the cod: Mix Icelandic Flake, pepper, and sugar in a bowl and then rub on the cod. Leave the cod in a refrigerator overnight. Before serving, take cod out of the refrigerator and soak in water for one hour. Bake at 350°F for 7 minutes.

To make the side dish: Cut celery root into small pieces and place in a pot along with cream and cook until the celery becomes soft. Put the cream, celery root, capers, olives and sun-dried tomatoes into a food processor and blend until smooth. Serve beside the cod.