Well seasoned: Seventh generation salt-making family carries Kan - WBOY.com: Clarksburg, Morgantown: News, Sports, Weather

Well seasoned: Seventh generation salt-making family carries Kanawha tradition of world-famous salt

Posted: Updated:
JIM WORKMAN / The State Journal JIM WORKMAN / The State Journal
JIM WORKMAN / The State Journal JIM WORKMAN / The State Journal

The beautiful, sparkling ingredient harvested in West Virginia that creates a burst of flavor both in and atop meals has an incredible story.

The journey to your plate and the history behind this “simple” ingredient is quite complex — especially since its past traces back to once being named “The Best Salt in the World” at the World’s Fair of 1851.

J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works is a marvel, based on its history, its manufacturing process and the quality food product that it produces to rave reviews.

It is a seventh generation salt-making family, harvesting an all-natural salt by hand, pulled from below the ground in the Kanawha Valley.

Brother and sister team Nancy Bruns and Lewis Payne carry on the family tradition now, explaining that “salt-making runs in our blood.”

Bruns, the CEO, has a passion for cooking. She operated her own restaurant and catering business in North Carolina before selling it in 2008. She then came home to Kanawha County and devoted herself to the family business.

Payne practiced law for a time and enjoyed success with several land holding companies before his return home to tend to family business, which eventually included salt. He enjoys cooking as well.

Chef’s delight

The company, located in Malden, uses a pump to draw water at about 350 feet below the surface. It’s poured into beds where brine is evaporated in special sun-houses and hand harvested, to create a “perfect farm-to-table salt” for any dish, according to several top chefs.

In just a little more than a year, food experts are just as thrilled about the product as the loyal customers who have found it.

“We have several chefs using it,” said Bruns. “We’re spreading out across the state. Local chefs are really excited about it.”

Some of the most respected restaurants and chefs in the Mountain State that serve J.Q. Dickinson Salt include Noah’s Eclectic Bistro and Paternos at the Park in Charleston, Steve Gustard of The Greenbrier’s Sporting Club, Sargasso restaurant in Morgantown, Provence Market and Café in Bridgeport and Chef Dale Hawkins of Fishhawk Acres at Rock Cave.

“It’s really the reason I thought of starting this business, because of the movement between consumers and chefs for local and regional ingredients,” Bruns said. “There was nothing that could meet that in our area. I thought we had a niche.”

Spike Gjerde, a popular chef and restaurateur in Baltimore, also is a J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works fan. And user.

He recently received an order of 150 pounds of the product, personally delivered by Bruns herself.

“He is replacing his regular cooking salt with ours,” said Bruns. “He is using it exclusively. He’s a big supporter.

“He is one of the forerunners in the farm-to-table movement, although he doesn’t like that term,” she added. “His vision is to change the food system so that we’re working with independent producers.”

Bruns explained big industrial farming is not producing the quality of food the public needs.

“He would also like to change the institutional food system,” she said. “He has partnered with Johns Hopkins University and their hospital. He’s going to start canning vegetables and fruits and do grains for their institutions.

“Our salt will be part of that as well. We’re excited about that.”

The chefs received samples of the salt initially, so Dickinson Salt-Works could receive feedback.

“It has been excellent,” Bruns said of the response. “We did a test market in the fall of 2013 and sent jars to some of the top chefs.

“We asked them to try it and let us know what they thought. Immediately, we got huge feedback.”

Chef Sean Brock is very well known in the southeast. He has his Husk restaurants in Nashville and Charleston, South Carolina and he is one of the top chefs in the country.

“He sources from only south of the Mason-Dixon Line and east of the Mississippi,” Bruns explained. “He called back and said ‘I want a truckload of it.’”

That was in the beginning stage of the company, however.

“And I answered, ‘How about 10 pounds?’” Bruns said with a chuckle. “Now, we send him regular shipments every month that he uses in both of his restaurants.

“He gave us a great testimonial for our website too.”

Historically significant

The Kanawha Valley was once home to about 50 salt companies, Bruns estimates.

Now there is just one.

Dickinson Salt-Works’ origin starts with William Dickinson, who bought property along the Kanawha River in 1813. He heard people were boiling brine from springs for the resulting salt. He first drilled for brine in 1817, using a hollowed out tree trunk for piping. By the 1850s, there were hundreds of wells along the river producing more than three million bushels of salt per year.

The Kanawha Valley became the largest salt producing region in the United States.

It soon became world famous.

It was in 1851 when “The Great Kanawha Salt” was selected as “The Best Salt in the World” at the World’s Fair in London.

“The salt industry is what started the coal industry here,” Bruns explained. “And the salt industry is really a precursor to the chemical industry here in the valley too. The chemical companies needed salt and the brine for other minerals they needed.

“When our family stopped making salt in 1945, they actually got into extracting bromides from the brine which they sold to Dow and DuPont. They kept evolving. They were the longest running company making salt.”

It was during research by her husband, who was working on his master’s degree in American history, Bruns found out more about salt in the Kanawha Valley.

“He was doing his thesis on the industrialization of the Kanawha Valley,” she said. “He found that Malden was the salt-making capital of the east in the 1850s, and oh, by the way, there’s this Dickinson family that just happens to be his wife’s family.”

It was literally a life changing experience for the whole family.

“I was learning about our family through a whole new lens,” Bruns recalled. “Both my husband and I, being foodies, had already been watching the salt trends. One day it just occurred to me to ask him, ‘Why did they stop making salt? Is it because there’s no more brine?’ And he said, ‘Oh, there’s plenty of brine.’

“I said ‘Uh-oh. You know what that means.’

“I sat on the idea for about six months and it wouldn’t go away.”

After that, a family tradition that dates back to the 19th century suddenly moved into the 21st century.

“We started putting a business plan together and doing a lot of research,” Bruns said. “We knew that consumers and chefs were really beginning to care about where their food was coming from. There’s no one is the southeast and the mid-Atlantic that’s doing a product like this, so I said, ‘Let’s try this.’”

Just as naturally as the salt is harvested from the ground, the decision was made to carry on the family tradition.

“I can’t think of the stars being more aligned,” Bruns said. “This is where I need to be.

“It draws on my food background and my family heritage.

“Working with my brother is a special thing.”

The family celebrated its 200th anniversary of being in Kanawha County in 2013, and had 140 Dickinsons present.

“That was very meaningful,” Bruns said. “We put (in) our well in May of 2013.

“The fact that we’re on the same land since the 1830s and have been making salt here is really something, although we’re doing it in a different way than they made it.

“It’s like a spiritual journey,” she added. “You can feel our ancestors looking down on us and smiling. At least I hope they’re smiling.”

The process

The process of harvesting the salt takes place on a nondescript, peaceful area along the river at Malden.

There are no signs posted and much of the roadway is gravel.

In addition to the family, there are just two employees.

“They have faith in us and they’re taking on a lot of responsibility with us,” Bruns said of Caroline Copenhaver and Megan Parker. “They both come from a science background.”

A pump draws the salt water up from the ground 350 feet upward through a non-corrosive PVC pipe into a holding tank. From there, the water is drawn and poured out into the waiting beds in the sun-houses.

“We have three sun-houses, two used for evaporation and one for crystallization,” Bruns explained.

Each bed used in the process is 7 by 28 feet, holding about 300-400 gallons each.

“We get about four ounces of salt from each gallon of brine,” said Bruns. “We consider ourselves as more of an agricultural product. We’re bringing this out of the ground and Mother Nature is doing the work. We manipulate it very little.”

Bruns said the process has been ever-changing, to achieve the highest efficiency.

“There’s no booklet to tell how to do this,” she said. “So there’s been a lot of trial and error.”

The integrity of the product is always top of mind — down to the tools used in the processing.

“We use wood (tools) because it is non-reactive to salt,” Bruns said. “Nothing metal can touch the salt because it would change the flavor of it. We keep it as natural as possible.”

The salt is separated from the water and placed in containers for drying. It takes about three days for it to dry, through several towel changes.

Growing business

With demand for the product and the ability to produce more salt, J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works is growing at a steady pace. Work is happening now for a new sun-house.

“When our construction is complete, we’ll produce about 7,000 pounds of salt per year,” Bruns said. “We have 50 wholesale accounts and we sell retail online too.”

“We have a 1-pound bag, a 1-ounce jar and a 3.5-ounce jar in retail package sizes,” she added. “We have a primary harvest, which is a finishing salt. That’s our premier product. We also make a cooking salt, which is our secondary harvest. It’s a much finer grain.”

The company’s website is jqdsalt.com and it gets support from West Virginia retailers.

The salt is also available at Tamarack in Beckley, the Wild Ramp in Huntington, Bella the Corner Gourmet at Lewisburg, the Good Natured Market in Martinsburg, Cathedral Café in Fayetteville and the WV Marketplace at the Capitol Market in Charleston.

“Our sales are doubling each month,” Bruns said “That’s good growth. We’re thrilled.”

Moving part of the process into a sun-house formerly operated by TerraSalis also improved production. With other recent upgrades, production quadrupled.

“We have a minority partner in Gaddy Engineering,” Bruns said. “They helped us a lot initially with our well. We wanted to make sure that there wasn’t any contamination of the brine. They did a lot of research for us. Their technical expertise has helped us design our new sun-house.”

Wait, there’s more

As if the salt harvested from the well isn’t enough, another product comes from the process, when the salt and water are separated — a liquid left after the final harvest is nigari.

“It’s an almost oily liquid,” Bruns explained. “There’s very little water left in it and it’s full of minerals.

“I’m pretty excited about it, as someone who has been in the food business for a long time. It’s an all-natural way to make cheese and tofu, which becomes another regionally sourced product.”

It became just another pleasing portion of the learning curve.

“I knew that we would have this byproduct, I just didn’t know how much and what we could do with it, the applications of it,” Bruns said. “We talk to chefs that want to make their own fresh cheese, like ricotta. You just heat up milk, add a little of the nigari to it, drain it through cheesecloth and you have beautiful, fresh cheese.

“It’s all natural, mineral rich, and it’s good for you.”

Health benefits

Bruns said one of the missions of the J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works is to help West Virginians eat healthier. A donation of net profits will be made to organizations that help the cause. It is a strong commitment to a farm-to-table lifestyle that drives them.

“There are several health benefits of eating unrefined salt,” Bruns said. “We’re all aware that it seems that West Virginia is always at the top of the list of obese states. But we feel like if we can get West Virginians cooking again, seasoning their own food, getting away from processed food, using their own salt, that we can make West Virginia a healthier place.

“That’s definitely part of our mission.”