The 500-year-old history of the ancient art of salt on Læsø
BY ANJA FAHS
(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 2 2019)
Denmark’s white gold – that is the name of the special Læsø salt that is seethed according to the old method on the small Danish island of Læsø. Danish salt has a long tradition: the Vikings already knew how to produce and refine sea salt. Denmark has large salt deposits, especially in Jutland and its northernmost island of Læsø. Here you will find endless wide marshes and green salt meadows, great tranquillity and untouched nature. The salt is extracted by hand using the same method as 500 years ago from the saline groundwater of the marshland and Wadden Sea. Each year, Læsø Salt produces around 80 tonnes of the wonderful spice. It tastes “of summer on the beach of Denmark”, says Poul Christensen, the founder of Læsø Salt. In any case, you can see the age-old craft and the love with which it is won. No wonder Læsø salt is one of the most sought-after salts in the world and so highly regarded by star chefs. Jeppe Ladefoged, managing director of Læsø Salt, tells us the story of the white gold.
Jeppe, Læsø salt is supposed to be the best and the most expensive salt in the world. What do you think? Is that true?
We are proud to say so and of course it’s true.
Can you describe how Læsø salt tastes?
Læsø salt is handmade salt with a full-bodied flavour, and its features mirror the fact that we maintain the old salt-seething traditions, which preserve the tasty minerals and trace elements in the finished salt product.
Læsø salt is actually sea salt but it comes from the ground water. How does that work?
We are located on the small island of Læsø, surrounded by the sea. The sea water around Læsø only holds 2 percent salt but the ground water on Roennerne can contain as much as 14 percent salt, and then it is possible to maintain a production operation that relies on evaporating the water. This method has been used since the Middle Ages.
Please describe the production process.
The salty groundwater is collected in tank trucks from our three wells in the area of Roennerne. It is transferred to the seething pans and heated. The water is allowed to boil during the evaporation process. Once the concentration of salt has reached 26%, the salt crystallises on the water surface. The temperature is then lowered to 50-60 degrees C, and the salt slowly sinks to the bottom of the pan. Each morning, this salt is collected in baskets above the pans, and it then drip-dries in the baskets before being taken to the drying loft for the last drying process, which is dehumidification. After that, the salt is ready to use.
And this method has been used since the Middle Ages?
For the past more than 500 years, salt extraction has played a vital role in the history of Læsø, leaving its distinct mark on the island landscape. The island had what was needed to produce large amounts of salt, namely salty groundwater and large forest areas. All the way back in the 12th century, Viborg Chapter had obtained island rights and the Vitskol monks set up the first salt-seething operations. The farmers on Læsø had to pay taxes in the form of salt to the monks.
Why and when did they stop producing salt?
When the salt-seething process reached its peak, it had assumed industrial characteristics and turned into what would become the first industry in Denmark. However, by the end of the 17th century, firewood shortages and heavy sand drifting put an end to the salt-seething industry.
Did you have archaeological excavations here in Læsø?
Yes, we had several years of excavations and the archaeologists Jens Vellev and Hans Langballe were able to document the salt-seething industry by mapping out more than 1,000 seething sites and carrying out archaeological analyses of approximately 20 salt-seething works.
A lot of world-renowned chefs only use your salt. Why is that? What makes it so special for high-level gourmet cuisine?
You cannot get a better salt. It tastes good and it is crispy. Great, beautiful salt crystals that melt on your tongue. It is simply delicious.
Which restaurant or chef using Læsø salt are you personally very proud of?
The Admiral Hotel in Copenhagen. Vesterøl in Vesterø Harbour.
In which countries do you sell the salt?
Sweden, Norway and of course Denmark. But you can also order salt from our online shop and have it shipped to your home.
Are the Læsø Saltworks open for visitors to learn about the production process?
The saltworks are open all year around from 10 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon apart from a few days only. During the summer, there are lectures at specified times at a small facility we have for tourists. And you can seethe your own salt there, which is fun.
Please tell us more about the Læsø Foundation; why a foundation?
Læsø Salt was established in 1991 as a historical workshop for unemployed young people from the Læsø Production School. By 2004, the saltworks of Læsø hit the breakeven point economically and were able to offer steady jobs, thus rendering the purpose of the Production School. Since 2005, Læsø Salt has been a limited company owned by the Læsø Foundation. The stocks are non-negotiable and the Foundation was established as a commercial foundation with the purpose of managing Læsø Salt Ltd and Læsø Spas.
What is your favourite dish with Læsø salt?
Eggplant with chives, mayonnaise and Læsø Salt on top.
The managing director of Læsø Salt, Jeppe has worked as an Operation Supervisor at larger estates gaining valuable experience with financial management, staff management and product development. He is now contributing this experience to new initiatives at Læsø Saltworks.
Picture credit © Tanja Schwartz