INTERVIEW Salt sellers

Living

 

Marjorie and Kieran O’Malley of Achill Island Sea Salt, at their home in Keel, Achill Island.
FRUIT OF THE SEA
?Marjorie and Kieran O’Malley of Achill Island Sea Salt, at their home in Keel, Achill Island.?Pic: Michael McLaughlin

Worth its salt


Going Out
Ciara Moynihan

Sometimes the answer is right in front of you. For Achill Islanders Kieran and Marjorie O’Malley, it most certainly was: It lay in the sea that surrounds them.  
The couple, who live in Keel on Achill Island, had often thought of setting up a business together. One night, Marjorie was at home watching a documentary on the television. It was on sea-salt production on the Isle of Anglesey in the UK. She mentioned to Keiran in passing that she’d found it very interesting. Her husband was instantly reminded of the book he was reading – ‘Edward Nangle: the Apostle of Achill’ – in which the remains of a salt factory in Polranny, Achill, in 1831, were mentioned.
The pair were struck by the coincidence, and soon Marjorie got to thinking, ‘I wonder could we do that?’. It was their ‘Eureka!’ moment. Not long after, in June of this year, Achill Island Sea Salt was born. Within weeks, food lovers all over the land – including high-profile food writers Sally and John McKenna – were raving about a delicious new salt on the scene, and shop shelves were emptying faster than the product could be replaced.
Speaking to The Mayo News, Marjorie admits she and Kieran are absolutely awe-struck and thrilled by how popular the salt has become. “It’s so exciting to start something and then see it grow in front of your eyes,” she says, “And to see people like it! Well…” – Marjorie is stuck for words, bowled over by the speed at which it has all happened.

A salt apart
Achill Island Salt has a pleasing flaky texture, and is full of the natural minerals of the sea – unlike traditional table salt, which is much more bitter. “Table salt is taken from salt mines, from deposits lain over millions of years,” Marjorie explains. “It’s highly processed. All the mineral content is taken out, and all you’re left with is sodium chloride. And then it’s sprayed with iodine, and anti-caking agent is added to it, so it won’t clump.
“Sea salt, on the other hand, is all natural. It can be in crystals or in flakes. You get crystals using a different evaporation process and cooling time. It’s very scientific, and the crystals are harder and have to be milled.
“Our salt is flakes. They break down in your hand. And the salt breaks down quickly on food, the foodies tell us, which is why they like it. And of course, none of the mineral content is taken out of our salt; all the trace elements and minerals – magnesium, potassium and so on – are still there.
“Sea salt also tastes much better than table salt. You’d never put your finger into some table salt and put it in your mouth. You’d be gagging for water! It’s not the same at all with our salt. You could eat it actually!”

Domestic operation
For now, the business is very much a domestic one. The couple can often be spotted collecting sea water at either Keel or Dooagh – depending on the tides – in plastic buckets, and bringing it back to their home kitchen. There, the water is poured into large stainless steel pots, and ‘evaporated off’. “You pan off the salt crystals as they begin to form, and then they’re dried,” Marjorie explains, adding that the panning process involves skimming the surface to remove the salt crystals, “a bit like the way you’d take fat off the top off a liquid.”
It might sound easy, but it’s a lot of hard work – the pots of sea water are on the go constantly – and there’s skill and accuracy involved, even in just in getting the temperatures and timing correct. “It takes ages… We’ve loads of pots that are burnt! Or they’ve corroded, or pitted. It’s very hard to get the right utensils. Salt is highly corrosive, so even if the pots are okay for a while, a week later they’re not,” says Marjorie.
Then there’s the cost of the packaging and labelling, not to mention the electricity usage involved in keeping water constantly on the boil. “We feel like we can’t stop – if you stop at all, one of our small group of suppliers might call and order another kilo, and you really want to have it there for them.”
The HSE has to be satisfied about hygiene and other standards, and it also takes time, trial and error to get to know the resource itself: The O’Malley’s discovered that they haven’t been able to collect salt during the two days of a high tide, as it’s too yellow in colour. Collecting the water can be hard work when the tide is far out the bay too: “You could decide you need the water and it’s way out… It’s fine in the summer, but now we’re in our wellies!” Marjorie giggles. But the end product is worth it.
And the future is looking bright. The plan is to move to a commercial premises in November, to allow a greater volume of salt production. But such upscaling involves its own risks. For example, the O’Malley’s will have to invest in ‘fabricated vessels’ of high-grade steel, but there’s no guarantee these expensive pots will resist the corrosive properties of the salt. And while they know there is a market for their salt, they really don’t know yet just how big that market is, so any investment cannot be taken lightly – especially when break-even weeks are currently rare.
Still, a new premises would at least bring one immediate reward: peace and quiet. “The most irritating thing is the extractor fan in the kitchen going constantly!” Marjorie laughs.  

Catapulted to fame
The O’Malley’s couldn’t have tested out their product in a more local setting: Just down the road in their local market.
“We started in the Saturday country market in Keel last June,” Marjorie reveals. “But we just couldn’t produce enough to stay there, because after a few weeks we decided to see if the local artisan shops, like Kelly’s in Newport and Café Rua [in Castlebar], would like it. And they did!”
Word soon spread. More outlets started stocking the salt, and restaurants from La Fougere at The Knockranny in Westport to Kai in Galway started using it in their dishes.    
“We could no longer stay with the country market then because our production capacity wasn’t big enough. We were still trying to keep up with Kelly’s and Café Rua and other places that were selling out of it. We’d have liked to stay at the market – it was lovely to see people’s reaction to the salt. But we had to go to the shops really, even though it meant letting go of that.”
Marjorie’s joy and surprised appreciation for the incredible speed at which word about Achill Sea Salt has spread is infectious. “The response in just a few months has been beyond our wildest expectations,” Marjorie gushes.
Laughing, she remembers how her husband phoned her one day when she was in Limerick visiting her mother: “He said to me: ‘I don’t know whether this is good are bad Marjorie, you might have to sit down’. ‘Just tell me quickly’, I said. ‘We’ve been Tweeted,’ he says. – Sure, I didn’t even know what that meant!”
It didn’t take the industrious O’Malley’s long to come to terms with new technology, however. Now they have their own Facebook and Twitter accounts, and they’re dab hands at social media.
Family first
Keiran is a native of Achill, while Marjorie is originally from Limerick. The couple met over 30 years ago at university in Galway, and have been living on Achill since 1999. They have three children – Seán (22), Maeve (18) and Colm (14) – all of whom have done their bit to help their parents’ salt business grow.
“Seán has gathered the water from the sea, he’s sat over the pots, and he has done deliveries. Colm helps with the packaging all the time, and Áine has gone to the market, she sat there for a few Saturdays selling. So everyone is involved.”
It was with their children in mind that Marjorie and Keiran first decided to strike out and try setting up a new business.
“It’s for them,” Marjorie says. “If you want to get philosophical about it, we felt that if we could create a sustainable industry on a place like Achill Island making an artisan product, that maybe our children would feel there was a future here – or not, but at least there’d be choices. It’s great they’re getting to see the business at this stage, while it’s small and there’s no huge pressures. They’re getting to see all aspects of it.”
Above all though, they are getting the gift of seeing their parents’ excitement and passion for a successful, home-made product they’ve created from scratch. “I love Achill Island Sea Salt,” Marjorie says, “I can put my heart and soul into it … I could talk about salt forever … I have to watch myself! It’s just so interesting, I can’t help it…
“This might sound daft I know, but when we make up the packets of salt, we don’t want to give them away. When they’re all piled up and the labels are on them, It’s like you’ve created something. I know it’s only salt, and it’s not a piece of art or something. But still… It’s a bit of you.”
For more on Achill Island Sea Salt, go to the Achill Island Sea Salt Facebook page, follow @achillseasalt on Twitter, or visit www.achillislandseasalt.ie.