Reproduced with kind permission of Cymru Culture Magazine
Neither of us can quite remember how we first came to hear of Halen Môn. But we'd definitely heard of it before we tasted it. We remember deciding, while we were on the island, to combine a visit to the Anglesey Sea Zoo with a look around the Halen Môn 'factory' next door. That was in 2004, and the Head Chef at Tŵr Cymru Culture Towers has bought no other salt since.
Halen Môn has gone from strength to strength since the company's foundation in 1997; becoming an iconic Welsh brand in those few short years. They have won award after award, including an accolade from Feria de Gastronomia, voted on by Michelin starred chefs, who noted Halen Môn as one of the world's top five gastronomic products. In the first of our series on great Welsh products, Alison Lea-Wilson, Director and co-founder of The Anglesey Sea Salt Company, agreed to tell us about the journey from cottage kitchen industry to gastronomic stardom ...
CC … How long had you been making salt at home before you decided to sell it? What inspired you to make it yourself, rather than to buy it?
ALW … We had been looking for new business ideas whilst still running Anglesey Sea Zoo. We both loved the business, but whilst it made money in the summer it steadily lost it in the winter and we wanted to give our staff year round employment. We sat down for a day and looked at a whole range of business ideas and the sea salt was one that stuck. We started making it at home and tasting it and then we realised we had struck 'culinary gold'!
CC … You certainly had. When did you realise you had something very special?
ALW … I think it was when we were approached at an exhibition (International Food Exhibition in London) by a charming Spaniard who was desperate to import it. He assured us that the top Spanish chefs would love it, and indeed they did. Given that Spain is the world's largest exporter of sea salt we were particularly flattered to have been approached.
Afon Menai at Brynsiencyn, Ynys Môn - the source of Halen Môn's organic sea salt
CC … How many other names were on the shortlist, before you decided on Halen Môn?
ALW … Halen Môn was always the front runner- it's easy to spell and to pronounce, and it reflects what it is.
CC … Did you think you may be taking a risk by using a Welsh language name?
ALW … We were told that Welsh products had no advantage, but we didn't believe it. We wanted to establish ourselves as an Anglesey product from the very beginning - and now, happily, Welsh provenance is being recognised all over the world as a quality marque.
CC … What was your early packaging like?
ALW … It was designed by FBA in Aberystwyth. It was white fish on a dark blue background; the same blue as we have today. The fish were meant to symbolise the sea - not the flavour, as some people thought. We wrapped the blank tubes by hand with the sticky labels as we needed them. And in those days you were only allowed to sell salt in certain weights so we chose 250g. Now we pack from 3g sachets to 25kg bags and we've just rebranded to make ourselves even more Anglesey-centred, with the help of the wonderful Sid Madge of Madhen.
The current 100g range
CC … Did you receive much help from government agencies?
ALW … We really owe our success to Menter Môn who believed in the product and gave us a grant to purchase the first equipment. Almost more important than the money was the belief that we were on to something workable. Lots of other people said that no one would buy it because it was far too expensive.
CC … What was your first outlet?
ALW … David, my partner, co-director and co-founder, went to London and attended a sales exhibition for a day. He took 2 orders, one from a London deli, which has since gone bust, and one from our local butchers in Menai Bridge - still a customer today!
CC … Selling through Waitrose and Marks and Spencer must have transformed your business. What were the main changes?
ALW … They helped us be a lot more professional and lay down systems to make the product more consistent. We now have BRC accreditation [the technical standard for food packaging manufacturers, developed jointly by the British Retail Consortium and the Institute of Packaging – Ed.]. Our third inspection this year has given us a Grade A. They also gave us the volume we needed to be able to invest more in the business.
Salt harvesting at Halen Môn's Brynsiencyn factory on Ynys Môn
CC … Your products have had some fabulous endorsements. Which ones have made you the proudest?
ALW … It's difficult to pick them out really - I get equal satisfaction from local chefs such as Keith Rothwell from the Bulls Head Inn in Beaumaris and the Executive chef of the Mandarin Oriental group in Hong Kong. I also get an enormous kick out of the fact that President Obama's favourite chocolates, made by Fran's in Seattle, are topped with our oak smoked Halen Môn.
CC … What should our daily salt consumption limit be?
ALW … Six grams, and that includes the salt in all the 'processed' foods, such as cereals, bread etc. We are supplying a growing number of manufacturers, as our Halen Môn sea salt contains more taste, for less sodium. Perfect if you are trying to cut down on salt consumption.
CC … I am able to buy products from around the world in my local Tesco. However, so many top quality products made right here in Wales are not stocked. And the same goes for Asda, Morrisons and Sainsbury's. Why aren't the major supermarkets beating a path to your door?
ALW … Actually, although I take your point about ease of purchasing, selling to supermarkets is a tricky business, especially for a product like Halen Môn that trades on quality not price. Small businesses get squeezed and we are seriously worried by the way things are going for a lot of products and producers. We are able to sell through farm shops and delis and are just about to start working with Amazon. We are more comfortable with that as a sustainable business model.
CC … You've travelled around the world to meet clients and potential customers. Would you like to share any highlights with us?
ALW … We have been very privileged to visit places like Russia, Shanghai and Finland and we've made friends along the way. We also get to go into kitchens and have delicious food cooked for us by friendly chefs. And we also do tastings in big stores like Harvey Nichols and Harrods - it's fascinating to see behind the scenes.
CC … Your quest for world domination looks to be going according to plan (Halen Môn is sold in around two dozen countries worldwide already). With which breakthrough were you happiest?
ALW … I love the process of selling; to meet enthusiastic chefs and retail buyers and show them the range, and then to get the order is a fabulous feeling. We are about to start supplying the wonderful Leon chain of restaurants in London with a bespoke blend, and I've just come back from seeing the Catering Manager of my local National Trust restaurant who wants to use it in their kitchens and on the restaurant tables. It's a great feeling that people will be enjoying it all over the world, in small and bigger outlets. I've got a very important meeting coming up later this week and if we get the order I will be shouting it from the rooftops!
CC … How many people are employed on your site?
ALW … Twelve. And the salt harvesters' initials appear on the bottom of each tube so you can see who made what you are sprinkling onto your food.
Salt harvesters Keith, Gareth and John at the Brynsiencyn factory
CC … Tell us about your product range.
ALW … Pure sea salt in different sized crystals from ground to order, to three centimetres across and fine and coarse in between; organic spiced; organic celery; Welsh oak smoked and Tahitian vanilla. Our latest product is a beautiful ceramic kilner jar filled with pure Halen Môn, complete with wooden spoon and it is perfect for table top use and by the cooker.
CC … I can't wait to try the organic celery salt. A good Bloody Mary is hard to beat, and I reckon Halen Môn celery salt will give it a real zing. Are any other flavours in the pipeline?
ALW … It certainly does. We are working on a seasonal range, hand blended and packed into dinky kilner jars and it will include lavender, chilli and garlic, and a special Christmas blend.
CC … Alison Lea-Wilson, thank you.
Try some Halen Môn recipes:
With Organic Celery Seeds …Use as a dipping salt for quails' eggs, in a classic Bloody Mary or in savoury dishes like winter casseroles and roasted vegetables.
With Tahitian Vanilla …With a fine dusting of vanilla seeds, this salt is the perfect partner for white fish, shellfish, salads or creamed vegetables. Or use it to add a decadent edge to anything chocolatey.
With Welsh Oak …Slowly smoked over Welsh oak chippings, this salt has a warming, autumnal aroma. Serve with scrambled eggs, poached chicken, fish, raw oysters, or give chocolate or caramel desserts a deliciously quirky twist.
With Organic Spices …Mixed with nine organic and Fair Trade spices, this salt has a rich, rounded flavour. Perfect with tomato, cheese or roasted meat dishes or sprinkled over roast potatoes for a glorious, spicy crust.