Jan 07 2016

A Harvest of Salt from the Canaries

A volcanic landscape bathed by the clear waters of the Atlantic at the southernmost tip of the Canary Island of La Palma, all of it declared a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO. This is the source of one of the Canaries’ most enticing gourmet products: hand-harvested sea salt and 'flor de sal' from Salinas de Fuencaliente

As the plane flies towards the island of La Palma in the Canaries, travelers are enchanted as some of the island’s main features appear: leafy banana plantations along the coast, narrow roads with little traffic, and small villages nestling on the mountain slopes. And, on landing, the main impression, strangely, is that life here is lived at a slower pace than elsewhere. This island, the third largest in the Canary archipelago, has two very distinct faces. The north is inundated with shades of green, with lush vegetation watered by many springs. The south is unmistakably volcanic. From the top of the San Antonio and Teneguía volcanoes, the view is unique: to one side is the crater left behind by the latest eruptions and, to the other, the south coast and the infinity of the ocean, with the islands of El Hierro and La Gomera just before the eye reaches the smooth line of the horizon.

Starting out from these volcanoes and their interesting interpretation center, I took one of the trekking routes down to the Fuencaliente saltworks at the southernmost tip of the island. There I met Andrés Hernández, a young entrepreneur from La Palma who had no doubts about returning to the island to take charge of the family business after completing his studies in Business Administration and Management at the University of La Laguna in Tenerife. His enthusiasm and determination to achieve only the very best quality have allowed him to successfully sell sea salt and flor de sal in food stores in the Canaries, rest of Spain and to start exporting to the competitive markets of Germany and the UK.

Third generationThe Fuencaliente saltworks date back to 1967, when our host’s grandfather discovered the ideal conditions in this spot for producing salt. He had seen saltworks on other islands and sought the advice of experts before setting up a small business in this privileged location. His son Fernando followed in his footsteps, and Andrés is now the third generation to have fallen under the spell of this edible mineral.

“I always knew my future would be determined by the saltworks,” states this young islander. “We used to spend the summers, in a small house actually inside the saltworks, and the sunsets and sunrises I experienced here must have left their mark,” he tells us with a smile that never leaves his lips. The “toll” he has had to pay has been tough decision-making, a lot of hard work making his artisan flor de sal known and a fight to break down the barriers that make exporting from an island expensive and logistically complicated. “We’re only too aware of the problems, but the quality of our products—flor de sal and virgin sea salt, whose secrets lie in the soil, the water and the air that surround us—helps us resolve them all.”

Andrés knows what he is doing. He devotes his time to managing a company with up to 20 workers, exploring new markets and setting up marketing projects. But he is also perfectly capable of donning his rubber boots and overalls and getting into the ponds to skim off the flor de sal with a sort of sieve, ensuring the product is not damaged during harvesting. “You can never tell when the thin layer of salt crystals is going to form on the surface of the ponds. It depends on the moisture and the light during the last few days of the cycle. So if the layer forms on the weekend and the workers are not expected until Monday, then it’s up to me to collect the flor de sal.”

Canary island salt

So how is this exquisite condiment, flor de sal, formed (Spain Gourmetour No. 76)? It takes just three ingredients from nature: sunlight, relative moisture in the air and wind. What makes things more complicated is getting them in the right proportions. Plenty of hours of sunlight are needed, with low levels of moisture and just a gentle sea breeze to produce irregular flor de sal crystals on the surface of the ponds. This process is very different to that of common sea salt, which is formed by evaporating the water and precipitating the salt to the bottom of the pan.Once this layer has formed, the flor de sal is collected and packed by hand. The artisan nature of this gourmet product is shared by another, also made at the Fuencaliente saltworks, namely, Teneguía sea salt. After being collected, this fine salt is milled, dried and packed without any sort of chemical processing to ensure that its organoleptic and mineral qualities are not altered.

The artisan production and natural origin of these two products are two of their main distinguishing characteristics. There is only one other similar saltworks in the Canaries (at Janubio, on the island of Lanzarote), but its production and sales are well below those of Fuencaliente. Andrés mentions a key fact reflecting the huge effort he is making to keep this small-scale process in operation. “In the middle of the last century, there were over 50 similar saltworks in the Canaries. Today, there are just two, and we are the only ones really looking towards the future and working on exports.”

Hand harvesting

Andrés tells me his business belongs to the European Federation of Producers of Hand-Harvested Sea Salt, an international network that aims to preserve this type of traditional operation. He also explains that it was only towards the end of 2011 that the Spanish Ministry of the Environment and Rural and Marine Affairs passed regulations for the sale of traditionally-produced, hand-harvested sea salt having a sodium chloride content below the figure under previous legislation. “All this is helping us and giving us energy to defend our virgin sea salt and flor de sal in Spanish and European markets.”

As we visit the saltworks, protected since 1994 as a Site of Scientific Interest with its wetlands rich in flora and fauna, Andrés describes the projects he is currently working on. “In early 2012, we began to build an interpretation center for the saltworks where visitors can learn about this ecosystem, its value as a natural process and the sustainable cultivation of sea salt and flor de sal. We will also have a restaurant offering Canary cuisine and focusing on foods and wines from La Palma and from the other islands.” All of this amounts to an ambitious project, considering that the company has a staff of just seven, including, as Andrés confides to us, “three who have been with us for over 20 years. They’re like part of the family.”Today travelers and trekkers in the south of the island can reach the Fuencaliente saltworks on foot, enter the area of the ponds and hear in situ about the process of producing the virgin sea salt and flor de sal. And, of course, the products are available for them to buy. In fact, these direct sales to German, French and British travelers are “the first link in the company’s export chain”, according to its manager. “These tourists are the people that take our products back home, where they then serve as opinion leaders and product advisors.”

Sustainable, ecological, top-quality production is what Salinas de Fuencaliente has to offer, meeting the needs of demanding markets such as Germany, where they have a distributor, Herbaria, which sells its products in a chain of organic food stores that extends all over the country. One of the company’s strategies for attracting customers (and keeping them) in Germany is to encourage visits to the saltworks. “We have managed to acquire some faithful customers in Germany by organizing personalized visits here so that they can see for themselves how the whole process is done by hand and, at the same time, appreciate our unique cultural, natural and ethnographic landscape.”

A gourmet touch

The flor de sal grown and manually harvested in these saltworks is on offer in many restaurants in La Palma and the other Canary Islands, some of which are part of the revolution in Canary cuisine. One example is Mirador de Humboldt restaurant in the Valle de la Orotava in Tenerife, led by a great advocate of the islands’ produce, Pedro Rodríguez Dios.

One of his interesting creations is Sorbete de mango con yogur de cabra, virutas de almendra palmera y pimientas del mundo (Mango sorbet with goats’ milk yoghurt, La Palma almond flakes and peppers), which includes, among other Canary products, flor de sal from Salinas de Fuencaliente. The chef describes his dish as follows: “It represents part of the essence of the Canaries, with spicy, balsamic, sweet and milky touches. It’s an essentially Canary dish because it includes the magnificent almonds grown on the island of La Palma, and we bring out their flavor by combining them with the Salinas the Fuencaliente flor de sal. And the Canary Islands are among Spain’s main producers of goats’ milk, so the leading role in this dish is shared by goats’ milk yoghurt.”

After a history of about 50 years, Salinas de Fuencaliente has been able to preserve a traditional, ecological activity while introducing a gourmet product on the commercial circuit. Things have not been easy for Andrés and his family, least of all when the nearby Teneguía volcano erupted in 1971, spurting out lava which all but reached the lighthouse at the edge of the saltworks. But today they have a promising future, marked by the entrepreneurial zeal of Andrés and his intention to take this 100% La Palma product to all lovers of good food.

A Harvest of Salt from the Canaries
Canary Islands

Canary Islands