Despite having undergone a well documented culinary revival in recent years, Britain is not known as an exporter of ingredients to international chefs. Whereas the Italians are known for their tomatoes in summer, the French for their poulet de Bresse, the Spanish for their Cantabrian anchovies, the Brits are known to batter their fish, boil everything else and occasionally sit down at the weekend to eat something called a Sunday roast.
It is in this context that the international admiration heaped upon Maldon sea salt is quite extraordinary. For those who have thought it a faddish salt, something for the aspirational foodie or would-be Jamie Oliver, think again. Maldon salt is, simply put, the best salt in the world.
Why so? James Lowe, of Lyle's, who has cooked and travelled widely not only in Europe but in Asia and the Americas, says, “Maldon is used all over the world, people go nuts for it: the crystal structure of Maldon is just perfect for a finishing salt, it doesn't dissolve immediately and it also doesn't have a hard coarse-salt-like crunch. I've not seen anything like it abroad before."
It is this which is perhaps most unusual about the salt. Notwithstanding the romance, the family story and the British bias, there don't seem to be any authentic competitors to Maldon. Murray River salt from Australia as a product might come close but is about 100 years younger and doesn't have the international distribution.
Maldon, on the other hand has been produced in the same traditional way for over 100 years along the shores of the Blackwater Estuary in Essex.
With an annual production of approximately 1,000 tonnes, a massive 60% goes to the export market – to 45 countries. As such, the focus for the medium- to long-term is the domestic market. Steve, the fourth generation of the Osborne family to run Maldon, wants the brand to be to salt what Hoover is to the vacuum cleaner. It is produced every day, takes 24 hours to make a batch, and is the largest British exporter of sea salt.
As well as what Osborne calls the 'Delia Effect' in 2000 (when Delia Smith's unprompted endorsement duly wiped it from the shelves across the UK), perhaps the most significant appraisal of the product came from the father of Molecular Gastronomy and one the most important chefs in a generation, Ferran Adrià. He has said, “the characteristic crystals, soft palate and whiteness offer a fresh taste highly prized by gourmets." There's a beautiful irony in the fact that one of the most innovative chefs in the history of gastronomy was so reliant on – even in awe of – an elemental substance that has been harvested by a small family business since 1882.
Whether or not because of Adrià's endorsement, Maldon sea salt remains the gold standard within the cooking fraternity. Obsorne suggests that a mentor such as Adrià inevitably has an effect on his alumni, whether that be through teaching the process of spherification or sharing his favourite salt. Today, international fans include Thomas Keller, April Bloomfield, Pierre Gagnaire and even Martha Stewart.
With Maldon there is consensus on the reasons why it is so good. It seems that as well as its 'softness', there is no bitter aftertaste often associated with salt; such is the level of refinement, weirdly it isn't so salty. Nieves Barragán Mohacho, head chef of Barrafina says, “I love Maldon because it is elegant and not too salty…it doesn't change the taste of the food." This, perhaps, is key. Ollie Dabbous, another chef well travelled, says its primary appeal is “the flakes – quite flat and wide – which dissolve on the tongue, but not immediately, which gives a pleasing burst of salinity."
The geology of the land of course also plays its part: Maldon's surrounding salt marshes have been the site of salt production for thousands of years. And while Osborne says, “we have our Roman friends to thank", it is the experienced, artisanal production and natural beauty that help maintain Maldon's enduring reputation.