As a little girl, I shook salt with abandon on my food because I loved how the granules felt on my tongue. But over the years, my appreciation of sea salt developed into something akin to passionate fascination.
Having passed through a fixation on sel gris, a coarse, mineral-packed yet soft-flavored gray salt from Guerande in France, I began to favor sale marino di Trapani — sea salt from Sicily. I loved the sparkling white brightness of the salt and that the crystals were a mix of semi-fine to coarse, perfect for the cook and eater in me. But it niggled at the back of my mind that I was using Italian salt when I lived in Japan, an island nation.
I began using Japanese salts more and more but never found “the one” until I was given a taste of Wajima no Kaien. Shaking out some crystals on the palm of my hand, I was immediately excited by the look and feel of them. I licked up a smidge and then a bit more. It was explosive, yet gentle and not hit-you-over-the-head salty. Lovely.
After reading stories of the salt rakers in Bretagne, France, I had long yearned to see the salt fields, so I arranged a visit to the salt maker in Wajima.
The promotional materials for Wajima no Kaien salt showed the salt maker with his beaming face turned toward the sun, the dark blue sea in the background — taken while he was out on a boat pumping up deep-sea water. But my romantic fantasy of watching the salt raker at work was not to happen the day of our visit.
He met us at the door of a small building. His browned face was again tilted toward the sun, and he had a wide welcoming grin as he beamed at us through thick glasses.
Hajime Nakamichi only started making salt in 2000. Having grown up on Hegura-jima, an island off Wajima in Ishikawa Prefecture, he was a master fisherman by trade before working in the fish-processing industry producing partially dried fish.
In Japan, 98 percent of the fish destined to be partially dried (such as himono and mirin-boshi) is caught in far-flung foreign waters, and the resulting product is sold for less than Japan-caught fresh fish. This somehow seemed wrong, so Nakamichi began producing partially dried fish from the Sea of Japan with salt he had extracted from the same sea. Ultimately, however, he decided that making salt was more interesting than producing partially dried fish.
Providentially these enterprises roughly coincided with the abolition in 1997 of the 90-year-old government salt monopoly. Another element that drew Nakamichi to producing local, artisanal salt was that he would be creating a product that is in the hands of the gods: Each batch of salt he makes varies, naturally, in taste and texture.
Nakamichi takes his boat out from Hegura Island and pumps up pristine deep-sea water. The seawater first goes through a cleaning process where he removes the scum (calcium), a purification step that is skipped in cheaply produced salts. The purified seawater is pumped into a drying table over which hang drying lamps to simulate the sun. An oscillating fan buffets the now-concentrated saltwater with a tepid breeze. While his drying operation is not conducted out in the salt flats, the resulting salt is exquisite and the process is all very low-tech.
As the warm air wafts over the table, salt crystals begin to form after about 18 hours. The crystals are mesmerizing in the glow of the table lights. I wanted to scoop my hand into the saltwater and run my fingers through the mica-like formations.
Five-thousand liters of deep-sea water yields 600 liters of concentrated saltwater, from which 250 kg of salt can be harvested. Nakamichi rakes out the salt each day over the course of about one week. As the salt crystals are removed from the concentrated saltwater, what Nakamichi calls “pancake salt” solids form in the water, signaling that no more salt can be harvested. What was once 3 percent saltwater has become nigari (bittern), the coagulant used for making tofu, with a salt content of 23 to 32 percent.
The final step involves a small centrifuge resembling a washing machine. Each day Nakamichi packs the harvested salt in net bags and sets them on the spin cycle to remove excess moisture.
“Although the salt tastes the same throughout the seasons, when you sample the salt in the winter months it feels saltier on your tongue than during the summer,” Nakamichi revealed.
While perhaps not intuitive, this made perfect sense to me. The sharp taste of salt in some way combats the cold of winter, while in the sultry Japanese summers our bodies lose salt through sweat and thus absorb it with pleasure. I cannot say that I am able to pick up the nuanced differences of how salt reacts in my mouth in summer and winter, but I am able to identify Wajima no Kaien every time. It is my salt, and I take it with me wherever I go.
1-97 23-bu Kawai-cho, Wajima-shi, Ishikawa-ken; www.wajimanokaien.com Nancy Singleton Hachisu is the author of “Japanese Farm Food.” A Stanford graduate, she is married to a Japanese organic farmer in rural Saitama.