“Cross the Buxton River and I’ll meet you at the gate,” says Chris Manson over a crackling phone line. Even though the gps doesn’t recognise it, Mayfield Jetty Road in South Swanport, on the remote eastern coast of Tasmania, finally heaves into view after a few directions from Manson. As monocle pulls up he is wearing sturdy workboots and shorts, despite the wind and the single-digit temperature. He climbs out of his 4x4 and strides through mud to open the first of three gates, which swings wide to reveal fields of sheep, paddocks and more mud. A short drive brings us to two sheds on the shore of the Tasman Sea and the reason for our journey Mason’s salt farm.
Manson’s business partner and wife is Scottish-born Alice Laing. The pair met in London before moving to a Tasmanian village close to South Swanport in 2013. “We weren’t set on a sea change,” says Laing, who had spent the previous five years working in sponsorship for the London Olympics. A chance visit to her husband’s birthplace of Tasmania soon provided the inspiration for their new life.
“We’ve always been very interested in food,” says Laing, who worked in catering in her early career. “When we visited Tasmania I was amazed that everyone was cooking with Maldon Sea Salt, which was shipped from the UK to the end of the Earth. I thought that was pretty crazy seeing as they were living on an island surrounded by pristine sea water.”
The couple began researching the farming of sea salt and quickly discovered that the Tasman Sea had all of the elements they needed. Packing up their lives and jobs Manson, then an in-house lawyer for the Football Association in the UK, set about dedicating the next three years to building a business.
“We tested the water up and down the coast from Bicheno to Triabunna, looking for the perfect spot,” says Manson, who had spent summers as a child surfing, swimming and diving in these very seas. Tasmania’s clean water and lack of humidity (particularly come winter) are the perfect conditions for farming salt. “It is remote and far away from pollutants,” says Manson. “The cleanliness of the water is key and we realised that we would be able to produce a salt that was unrefined and unprocessed.”
The pair began approaching farmers to see if one might be interested in leasing them a paddock that fringed this part of the coast. “It was a pretty hairbrained idea,” says Manson, reflecting on the rather unusual manner of setting up. “But a fifth-generation sheep farmer named Bruce Shepard (rather appropriately) was taken with what we were proposing.”
Working with an engineer, Manson and Laing designed all of their equipment. A pump moves seawater 30 metres from the high-tide line into a large evaporator tank. The solar-and-thermal-powered evaporator sends the water coursing through hundreds of tubes to create a concentrated brine, which is then fed into a warm stainless-steel pan inside the shed. The concoction sits here for six days; crystals form slowly and are air-dried before being hand-poured into boxes and shipped out.
“We’ve had extraordinary support,” says Manson. “From the council approving our plans straight away, through to support from neighbouring farmers, to chefs and retail customers all over the island.” Distribution is by road and sea. A truck comes from Hobart, making the hour-and-a-half drive along the winding coast and across the sheep paddocks to carry the salt to the capital and by ship to Melbourne on the mainland. “We are a long way from anywhere,” says Laing, looking out to the sea. “I’m from the Highlands of Scotland but this is the most remote place that I have ever lived.”
Seawater (3.5 to 4 per cent salinity) is pumped into an evaporator tank that turns it into a super-saturated brine (at almost 30 per cent).
The brine is moved to a double-walled pan where it is gently heated, which forces crystals to form on the surface. As they become larger they sink to a tray at the bottom and are collected.
Once the salt has been lifted out of the crystallisation pan it is transferred to a dryer where a giant fan aerates the crystals with warm air for up to eight hours.
The crystals are moved next door to the packing shed. The salt is poured into a hopper, weighed and dropped into a bag below.