April 4, 2006
On a recent Saturday afternoon at the House of Glunz, Stefana Williams hosted a salt tasting. It was the first time in the wine merchant's 118-year history that it had paired its vintages with sodium chloride, and Williams, the proprietor of a sea-salt marketing business called Lot's Wyfe and a self-described "salt evangelist," was eager for an audience. A native and former resident of Los Angeles, Williams has bright blue eyes and a spiky blonde hairdo. She's also a former actress. She stood behind a glass-topped display case at the rear of the shop.
"Let me give you my spiel," she said whenever a person approached.
A middle-aged woman eyed the spread. There were plates of cut-up beets, cucumbers, apples (Granny Smiths, Roman Beauties), pineapples, chocolate truffles, and jicama roots—"vehicles," Williams said, "for the delivery of salt." There were toothpicks, and there were tins and Petri dishes filled with crystals on a range of coarseness, from powdery to granular.
"Do you know anything about sea salt?" Williams asked.
"No, not at all."
"Per-fect. Lot's Wyfe is the name of our company--you know, the gal from the Bible who turns into a pillar of salt? In fact, one of our slogans is: 'Sprinkle often. Never look back.' We source our sea salts from all over the world, from five different oceans, and it's all hand harvested, it's all completely organic. Unlike Morton's, there is no iodide, there are no anti-caking agents. This is our Hawaiian, and this is our Sicilian, and this one, this is my new favorite. It's from Australia."
The Aussie was a light Valentine pink, the Hawaiian a muddy reddish-brown, the Sicilian a pale priest's collar white. In addition, there were two of what Williams called "experiments," salts from the seawater of San Francisco Bay that she had flavored with the essences, respectively, of chipotle and mole.
"Interesting," the woman said. "Can I try one?"
"Try them all."
The woman dipped a piece of cucumber into the Sicilian and popped the coated vegetable into her mouth. She chewed deliberately for a moment and then her eyes opened wide.
"Salty!" she said.
As part of the promotional literature for her Lot's Wyfe brand, Stefana Williams has written a short essay entitled "Confessions of a Salt Fiend." At one point in the essay, she writes that when she's gone without salt for a few hours she feels herself "getting twitchy for another hit." For as long as she can remember, Williams has had an uncommon affection for the substance. "I think it's because I have low blood pressure," she likes to say. "My mother was not a terrifically good cook. And yet she'd always be experimenting. She would use us as guinea pigs for her food, and we'd invariably want to mask the, you know, curried eggs on white bread. She used a lot of curry. I mean, she made some really scary stuff, and if you could mask her food with salt, it was a beautiful thing." What grew out of necessity became, she says, "a magnificent obsession. It's bad. It's like, give Stefana a salt lick and she'll be happy."
Until fairly recently, though, Williams knew only mass-produced table salt. But in 2002 a friend gave her bottle of Mediterranean sea salt packaged by a winery called Vignalta, in the Colli Euganei hills of northern Italy, not far from Venice. Rosemary shrubs grow wild all over the grounds of the Vignalta estate, and the salt was flavored with rosemary. "It was so pure and so good. It just rocked my world. The difference between Morton's and the Vignalta was light years. And I know it's just salt, but it really did change my course—no pun intended. I was born again." To this day she keeps the same bottle of Vignalta in her pantry.
A varied career path has led Williams to salt. She received her dramatic training in the early 1980s from a joint MFA program run by DePaul University and the Goodman Theater. Armed with her degree, she tried to make a go of an acting career in L.A., her hometown. The closest she got to a break was intermittent work on The Young & the Restless. "I did all the voice-overs. So, you know, when you'd hear, 'Would Dr. Smith please come to the ER,' that was me." She starred in commercials and industrial film. She had small parts on two episodes of Simon and Simon. Eventually she took a job in public relations. In the meanwhile, though, she also developed many friendships and connections in the restaurant world. "All the actors I knew ended up in the food and restaurant business," she explains. "Because that's what happens to actors."
As a publicist, Williams co-founded her own firm in Portland in 1989, and part of her duties involved writing press releases for small companies that had launched product lines. After her epiphany with the Vignalta, she says, "I thought, 'Because I'd helped so many other people do it—why don't I try to do it, too?'"
At the time she lived in Pacific Grove, California, on the Monterrey Peninsula. Therefore, she says, she had the initial notion to call her company She Sells Sea Salt By the Seashore. "It would have been hard to fit that on a label, but I liked it." As it turns out, an employee at the Pacific Groves town hall, where Williams had gone to apply for a business license, gave her the idea for the business's current name. The worker couldn't remember the biblical character transformed by God into the pillar of salt. What was her name again? "Lot's wife," Williams replied, and with that she had rechristened her company.
After finding a salt importer and wholesaler—a company called Saltworks, based in Seattle—after choosing her favorites from a number of sea-salt varieties, Williams began selling the salts under the Lot's Wyfe brand name in 2003. In that same year, she moved to Chicago to join her fiancé, Henry Bishop, at the time the sommelier at high-end Italian restaurant, Spiaggia. Bishop is currently researching a book about wine, and Williams often joins him on the road, ready to hawk her salts at the wineries they visit throughout the country. She packages her product by hand in eight-ounce tin cylinders with clear plastic tops. When she needs to fill out an order, a ping pong table in the living room of her loft apartment doubles as a "staging area." Her connections in PR and the restaurant business have helped her build a roster of clients. Recently, Williams was looking at her list of customers (which include Spiaggia, Restaurant 312 and the Four Seasons Hotel) when she furrowed her brow and said, "Well, this is a little nepotism going on here. But I'm okay with that!" Several retail outlets carry her tins, including the suburban gourmet chain Foodstuffs, Sam's Wine & Spirits, the House of Glunz, and the shops of a few dozen wineries. A catalog called the Grateful Palate, published by Dan Philips, who is a kind of J. Peterman of the artisanal food world, also carries Lot's Wyfe. For his blurb on Williams and her salt business, Philips wrote, "I love people with good taste and an obsession. A dangerous combination." Not long after starting up, Williams took on a partner, Mary Shannon, an old friend and a former pastry chef. The partners say they're at the point of needing investors; they intend to write up a business plan sometime this year. Williams would like to eliminate the middleman and import the salt herself, direct from the source. In the short run, however, she merely hopes to "outsource" the job of sticking the labels onto her tins. If a substantial order were to come in now, she says, "I'd be in big trouble."
There are six main sea salts in the Lot's Wyfe line, and the origins of each fascinate Williams. She once lectured on the subject to students at Kendall College, the local culinary school. Her salts come from the Guerande region of Brittany, from the west coast of Sicily, from the Big Island of Hawaii, from the Cook Strait that splits the north and south islands of New Zealand, from the Murray-Darling Basin of southeastern Australia, and from San Francisco Bay. The French salt is the most highly regarded by chefs and gourmands. Salt farmers called paludier harvest the crop once a year from the tidal marshes along the Atlantic coastline at the mouth of the Loire. They follow traditional Celtic methods developed over thousands of years. Each February, the paludiers dig channels that lead from the marshes to shallow evaporation beds. When the tides come in, seawater flows through the ditches and fills the beds, which are lined with gray clay. Less porous than sand, the clay effectively traps the water and gives the salt its color and some of its flavor. Through the spring and summer months, the paludiers channel the water from bed to bed, a process meant to hasten evaporation. As the waterline drops and as crystals form, farmers use wooden rakes that resemble giant squeegees to gather the salt into piles along the perimeters of the beds. Guerande means "white land" in the ancient Breton language, and from the air the beds at harvest form an enormous white-and-gray quilt extending for miles along the coast. If it rains hard, the entire harvest is lost. Against such possibilities, buyers take out insurance. If, on the other hand, luck is good and conditions are right—calm winds, dry air, lots of sun—a layer of salt rises to the surface of the pools and shimmers there like gemstones. As it dries, it smells of violets. Because of the aroma, this salt is called fleur de sel, it occurs infrequently, and it's drawn off separately and sold at a premium. It's considered the Grand Cru of sea salts. French sea-salt purity laws are strict. The beds must lie at least 400 meters from any road and, therefore, any runoff. The rakes must be made of wood; metal would affect the chemistry of the crystals. No artificial drying methods are allowed—only the sun and the wind. Gray salt from Brittany has less sodium and more trace minerals than other sea salts and therefore has been described as "clean" and "crisp," with high acidity like a Burgundy Chablis. The drying period is deliberately kept short—in other regions, salt is dried for up to five years—and when Stefana Williams opens a fresh bag of Guerande salt in her Bucktown loft 3,000 miles away, it's still wet.
Each of the other five salts on the Lot's Wyfe menu is harvested by similarly painstaking and idiosyncratic means. The Hawaiian salt, for instance, is combined with red clay dug from volcanic mountains. The harvesters do the mixing by hand inside their Hilo kitchens. The resulting salt has a smoky mineral taste, heavy with iron oxide, and is especially prized for its quality as a rub for roasting meats. Indeed, every type of sea salt has a distinct taste and appearance, and each salt derives much of its character—both its flavor and structure—not just from the clay, but also from the chemistry and mineral content of the water from which it was extracted.
"You know how they have the term terroir for wine? Well, in my opinion, there's a merroir for sea salt," Stefana Williams says. At one point, she thought she'd coined a new term. "But I found that someone else had come up with it for oysters." Williams has never actually been to any of the sea salt farms that produce her products, not even the one in San Francisco. She is sheepish when she admits this, but she has plans to right the situation. A friend works for public television, and Williams would like to pitch a documentary: She'd travel to each of the major salt-producing regions, exploring the processes and people of the merroir.
Along with her bulk bags of sea salt from around the world—this past Christmas her inventory contained 600 pounds of it—along with her old bottle of Vignalta, Williams also keeps in her pantry a cylinder of Morton Iodized. "I keep it there just so I can show people the difference." Despite her proximity to the Morton's Goose Island warehouse on Elston Avenue—Williams lives in Bucktown—she has never paid a visit to investigate the possibility of a Morton merroir. "But sometimes I do ride my bike right by it," she says, "and then I'm like," and she flips up her middle finger. When compared to good quality sea salt, Williams says, Morton Iodized leaves on the palate a disagreeable chemical tang. She takes a pinch onto her tongue and makes a face. "There's this lingering thing that happens at the back of your mouth. It's almost . . . uncomfortable. Sea salt, it takes you to a different place, and makes you appreciate your taste buds."
Some portion of Williams' love of salt has nothing to do with flavor or purity. Once she'd learned about the history of the harvesting methods, about the techniques and the locales and the people involved, she began "to see the whole world differently. Not just salt—but everything you look at." When Williams lived in Portland, Oregon, she wrote and self-published a volume entitled Portland's Little Red Book of Stairs. Part history and part guidebook, it details the old public staircases built in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries throughout the hilly sections of Portland. At bottom, she says, she's interested in "hidden worlds," in "stories about things you thought were so regular." She goes on, "Why would someone ever want to write a book on stairs? I mean, duh, they're there. What else needs to be said? But as soon as you spotlight something, or showcase it . . . I think it's like art. If you focus in on something, no matter how mundane, you can bring beauty to it, or bring some other new truth to it that wasn't explored before. It's the same with salt."
Last August, the Tribune published a blurb on Lot's Wyfe, and the blurb was syndicated in Tribune Company newspapers around the country. Hits increased on the Lot's Wyfe web site, and people used the listed phone number to give Stefana Williams a call. "They didn't buy a lot of salt, but that didn't matter. I just liked the one-on-one relationships. Not to talk about me or the business, but to talk about salt."
Williams sometimes says things like: "I want to spread the word about salt," and: "Salt needs to be defended." She uses the word "cause" and "evangelize." She says, "In the 1980s salt got vilified. It got this huge bad rap. I would go to this restaurant in Portland, and I remember taking the salt shaker and hearing this kind of audible gasp from people. They were like, 'Step away from the shaker.' So I had to take it underground for awhile, this salt thing." In her essay "Confessions of a Salt Fiend," Williams refers to "this pernicious period" as "the Salt-Free Diet Dark Ages."
But since then, Williams admits, public taste has improved, with culinary trends moving toward the organic, the artisanal, the unprocessed, the flavorful, and popular science has come back the other way, trumpeting the health rewards of moderate sodium consumption. But, she says, there's still work to be done, and she considers her Lot's Wyfe demos as instrumental to the movement. On some days "there's a learning curve" with her public. "Just getting people up to speed on the difference between sea salt and what might be on their tables now. Then sometimes you get those people who are all weird about salt. They're not exactly confrontational, but it's almost like you're demo-ing crack. They get enticed into coming over because they see all the food. 'Oh, are you demo-ing pineapple?' they say. And I say, 'No. Sea salt.' And they say, 'Salt? Oh my God, I've got hypertension! My doctor says I can't go near salt.' It's almost like you're being attacked." At other times, though, Williams succeeds in getting her message across. Her audience, mostly predisposed to high-end foodstuffs in fancy packaging anyway, is captive. "We're rocking and rolling. Everyone's talking about sea salt."
At the House of Glunz, however, Williams was doing most of the talking. A decent crowd had formed, maybe a half dozen people.
"What's your level of knowledge when it comes to sea salt?" she asked a young man who'd been sampling wine at the other side of the table.
Some comedian or other was eavesdropping. "So you're below sea-level, then."
Williams said, "You probably have Morton's salt on your table at home."
"We want you to change that," said Mary Shannon, Williams' partner, who was tag-teaming at the demo.
Williams moved into her spiel: "The stuff we carry, it's from five different oceans . . . It's hand harvested . . . It's from all these interesting parts of the word . . . Sicily, France, and this wacky Hawaii . . . The salt beds, the clay—the salt picks up color and nutrients from that and from the water . . . You know about the French terroir with wine? Well, I think it's the same with sea salt. I call it merroir . . . "
The man skewered a piece of jicama root with a toothpick, and seasoned it with some Hawaiian.
"Wow, that's cool," he said, and Williams beamed as if at a baptism.
He picked up a Lot's Wyfe brochure and leafed through it. Gesturing to the tins, he said, "I can get these online, I assume?"
Williams was a little abashed. "Actually, to be frank, as of right now, it's people send me checks and I send them the salt. It's kind of the honor system. I haven't had any problems yet, though."
The man continued to read the brochure for a moment. "Awesome," he said, bottling the conversation. "Very intriguing."
"Great! I'm glad you came by." Williams shook the man's hand. "And I'm glad we've intrigued a new person in salt!"