Aug 17 2010

Bonaire Sea Salt

August 17th, 2010 at 9:46 am (AST) by Jake Richter

As those of you who read this blog regularly know, I live on a small Caribbean island called Bonaire. Bonaire is located about 50 miles north of Venezuela, and is part of the Dutch Kingdom. Those of you not familiar with the island might assume it’s a lush tropical island – in fact, far from it. Bonaire is arid and dry, vaguely reminiscent of the Arizona desert in its general look and feel, vegetation included.

That means that not much grows on Bonaire, at least not that can be exported. Adding to that that Bonaire is a tiny little island (110 square miles or so) with a small population (15,000 people), and no stop lights, there’s not much capacity here for export of much of anything. Except salt, that is.

Cargill, one of the world’s largest privately held companies, owns the southern part of Bonaire, and uses it as a solar salt farm. They have giant man-made ponds, which they fill with sea water, seal off, and then over a period of months, let the sun and warm climate evaporate the water, leaving only minerals behind.

Satellite View of Southern Bonaire, Annotated by Jake (base map courtesy Google Maps)

Satellite View of Southern Bonaire, Annotated by Jake
(Click on image to go to an interactive Google Maps page)

The minerals left behind are primarily salt and gypsum, with the salt left on the top. As the salt concentration increases, the water color in the salt pans changes to a pink/purple, and can be quite vivid in the right light.

Salty Twilight by Jake Richter

Salty Twilight by Jake Richter
(Click to visit our Caribbean Art web site)

As you can see from the above image (one of my digital paintings using only natural colors), the mounds of salt that the salt company harvests look like little white mountains. At the peak of the salt harvesting season these may get to be 60-80 feet tall, I believe.

The Cargill salt company as seen from our home's roof - the white mounds are pure sea salt (Click on image to see it enlarged)

The Cargill salt company as seen from our home's roof - the white mounds are pure sea salt (Click on image to see it enlarged)

Bonaire’s salt is sent to the U.S. for processing, and typically used for chemical production, water softening, pool treatment, and sometimes even for deicing.

So why am I writing about industrial salt usage in a foodie blog? Well, I am starting to get more heavily into brining the meats I want to cook and grill, and brining necessarily involves salt. Lots of salt. And on Bonaire, buying salt at a supermarket in the quantities needed for brining can get quite expensive.

A 25 kilogram bag of medium grain sea salt from Bonaire

A 25 kilogram bag of medium grain sea salt from Bonaire

This is where Cargill’s solar salt works come in. It’s not widely known, but if you visit their offices here, they will sell you salt in 25kg bags (about 55 pounds), and cheap too – only about NAFl. 10 to 15 per bag (depending on grade). That works out to around $5.60 to $8.40 a bag. Not a bad deal at all. There are four grades available: fine, medium (similar to a Kosher salt in texture), coarse, and large. Large is the more expensive one because it involves a bit more manual sorting, with salt crystals averaging about an inch in width and height. While we have a bag of the large to use in some art projects for our gallery, for culinary purposes we prefer the medium grain.

Bas holds a couple of the large salt crystals also available from our local salt company

Bas holds a couple of the large salt crystals also available from our local salt company

There is one drawback, of sorts, to buying salt from the salt company here, and that is that they don’t have the equipment necessary to clean the salt so it can be certified to be pure of any biological elements (dead crustaceans, plankton, sea weed, bird droppings, etc.). Hence the “Not Intended for Human Consumption” printed on the bag as seen above.

However, the salt is rinsed and filtered before being put into the large salt mounds, and when bags of salt for local use are made, it’s from salt that’s inside the mounds as opposed to the exterior (which will tend to be a bit dusty). For what it’s worth, the sea salt you get from the salt company is widely used as is in local restaurants and tastes great. That’s good enough for me. After all, we eat fish from the local waters, happily, so why not the salt as well?

So, when I brought home the salt last week, the next question arose – how the heck do you manage a 25kg bag of salt? Especially in a humid and hot environment where it’s likely to get all clumpy?

Bas and Krystyana load up vacuum sealer bags with the salt

Bas and Krystyana load up vacuum sealer bags with the salt

The solution was to divide and conquer. We cleaned the outside of the bag, open it up, and then started bagging it in vacuum sealer bags – 1kg of salt per bag. The U.S. Post Office digital scale was a great way to ensure our bag weights were spot on (give or take 20 grams or so).

We tried to make each bag approximate 1kg in weight

We tried to make each bag approximate 1kg in weight

Vacuum sealing removed most of the air and thus most of the moisture, and 1kg bags are much more manageable than a 25kg bag.

25 bags of salt, 1kg each - impressive sight

25 bags of salt, 1kg each - impressive sight

The next step will take place in a week or so when my new Cuisinart rotisserie arrives and I start brining buckets of whole chickens.