"Salt is our white gold"
"Salt is our white gold"

Photo: Photos: Linn Bergbrant


White gold

On the tiny island of Læsø in Denmark, they use ancient methods to harvest sea salt. This exclusive white gold plays a key role wherever you go here, from restaurants to churches.

It looks like snow. A wheelbarrow is fully loaded with white rock and could just as easily have been parked outside a wintry mountain cabin. Here, however, the wheelbarrow is surrounded by leafy trees and verdant meadows. The pile of salt crystals is so dazzlingly white it hurts your eyes to look at it.

Saltmaster Poul Christiansen leads the way into the saltworks. The air is damp and plumes rise from a hot salt tank. Beneath the tank is a massive wood-fired stove and the entire building is shrouded in mist.Master saltmaker Poul Christiansen moved to Læsø 39 years ago and has never regretted it. For him, the best way to eat salt is on a slice of Danish rye bread with butter, slices of potato, mayonnaise, leek and pepper. “The salt in symbiosis with the mayonnaise! Food fit for the gods,” he says.

At Læsø Saltsyderi, the saltworks, they produce sea salt by hand from a single raw material – seawater from Kattegatt, the straits between northern Denmark and Sweden. Three times a week they collect new water from the old wells, which is then simmered in large tanks over an open fire, in exactly the same way they made salt in the Middle Ages.

“In those days, salt was absolutely vital. It was used to preserve everything from herring to pork and vegetables. If you boil vegetables and then preserve them in salt, they can keep for several years,” Christiansen says.

Læsø was famous far and wide for its successful salt production, run by a group of local monks. However, by the end of the 17th century, all the trees on the island had been chopped down to provide fuel to heat the salt pans. Without trees, the wind swept freely across the island spreading sand that would bury entire buildings. Eventually, salt production had to be banned and an entire industry was forgotten.

Then, 25 years ago, a group of archaeologists arrived on the island, looking for traces of the former saltworks. It didn’t take them long to find several ladles and metal pans. History enthusiast Christiansen joined them on that first dig and has stayed here ever since, to build up the business again, based on the original model.

“We heat the water to just below boiling point, about 80°C, then simmer it until the mix is sufficiently ­concentrated. Once the water reaches 26% salt, the first crystals start to form on the surface. They float around until they get large and heavy, at which point they fall to the bottom and make room for new crystals. It’s a slow process. It takes a full 24 hours,” Christiansen says.

The tanks are made of metal, just like in the old days. When the salt has been harvested, it’s left to dry in traditional willow-woven baskets. Wood is still used to heat the water, but today new trees are planted at the same rate as others are felled.

The water in the salt tank is orange tinted. It may look dirty, but in fact, the opposite is the case – it’s as pure and clean as it could possibly be. The sea salt harvested here is dazzlingly white. Approximately 5% of the salt consists of natural minerals and trace elements, such as lime, selenium, copper and iodine – it’s these minerals that give the water its color.

Christiansen calls the saltworks a “living museum,” which is now visited by some 70,000 people each year. He invites us to reach into one of the baskets and take a pinch of salt. With the utmost concentration, he holds his hand up to one ear and crushes it between his fingers.

“Listen. Good salt should crackle like a fire,” he says.

Production on Læsø only amounts to some 70 tonnes of salt – no more than two truckloads. Christiansen ­explains that it’s only sold to restaurants and private individuals in Denmark, Sweden and Norway, just like in the Middle Ages.

Meanwhile, there’s another saltwater tank in the adjacent building. Here, the process has come a bit further and you can clearly see how the crystals float around on the surface, looking like glitter. Christiansen takes a sieve and captures the first delicate crystals.

“The salt mustn’t have a bitter or metallic taste. It should taste of salt, summer and the sea,” he says.

Twelve people work at Læsø Saltsyderi today. Partner­ships with other local businesses are vital, so they have forged links with someone who makes shampoo whose main ingredient is salt, another making face scrubs based on seaweed and Læsø salt, and a third that produces ceramic salt pigs.

“There are loads of tourists here in the summer, but Læsø goes into hibernation in the winter. We’re forever looking for new ways to change this. If there’s not enough year-round work available on the island, young people will move away from here, and that’s something we don’t want,” he says.

That was also the thinking behind the salt spa. In nearby Vesterø, an old abandoned church has been converted into spa baths offering a variety of saltwater treatments. After waving goodbye to Christiansen, we cycle the 15km to the settlement, passing meadows and woodland along the way. With one third of the island a nature reserve, it’s not exactly crawling with coffee bars, and rather quirkily, bringing a bit of cash is a good idea, as almost every homeowner here has a flea market stall set up outside their house. Some sell porcelain and cookware, while others offer food, such as shallots, eggs and mushrooms.

You can see from far off in the distance, the white stone church tower indicating we’ve found the right place. The girl behind reception tells us that several of the pools contain mineral-rich water from the saltworks. The salt content is 30% in one, the same as in the Dead Sea, and we float around in it merrily, like corks. The water is amber-colored and the salt stings a little bit. The treatment, meanwhile, is effective against psoriasis.

After bathing, we rub ourselves with the salt scrub and take a steam sauna. An elderly couple swim around in the least salty pool wearing swimming masks, they tell us they are practicing ahead of a trip to the Mediterranean. Outside, a ladder leads up to a roof terrace that offers spectacular panoramic views – you can see both the sandy beach and Kattegatt very clearly.

Christiansen is pleased that he and his colleagues have been able to breathe new life into the saltworks.

“When you live on an island, you need to help each other. Salt is our white gold,” he says.

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