An Art of Sea and Time

Written by Armin Tolentino; Photographed by Laura Dart

You can be forgiven if you don’t know where the salt in your cupboard comes from. When you’re at the supermarket, perhaps you don’t select salt with the same care you use to select tomatoes or salmon, assessing quality, color, or responsible means of harvest and cultivation. But there was a time in our history when humans considered salt as precious as jewels and lustrous metals; when nations waged war over access to this mineral; when revolutions fomented against its taxation, and salt was reserved for communion with gods.

Ben Jacobsen knows. He’s not judging you if the teaspoon for your recipe comes from a Morton canister. But as the founder of Jacobsen Salt Co., the first company to handcraft salt in Oregon since Lewis and Clark’s expedition in 1805, he does recognize that there’s such a thing as great salt, that there’s an art to its harvest, and that it’s worth paying more attention to this indispensable ingredient we’ve likely taken for granted. 

For years, Jacobsen himself didn’t care about salt. When he earned his undergraduate degree in economic geography at the University of Washington, his passions included competitive cycling, travel, and the outdoors. But when he moved to Denmark to earn his MBA at Copenhagen Business School, he was introduced to high quality sea salt. It seemed an extravagance for a grad student, until he experienced firsthand how superior artisanal salt was to its commodity counterpart. He was hooked. 

After moving back to Portland, scouring local kitchen shops and grocery stores, he was surprised to find none of the finishing salt was locally sourced. “I became really curious: was there a reason that great salt wasn’t being made here? People had kind of overlooked the magic of the Pacific Northwest.” That curiosity, and his love of the coast, drove him to study traditional salt making techniques and, in 2011, to found a salt company of his own. 

Despite its extensive coastline, Oregon’s conditions are not ideal for sea salt production. High rainfall dilutes salinity and the many rivers that rage into the Pacific generate turbidity that would gum up any filtration system quickly. Add to that agricultural runoff, intense weather, and sheer cliffs impeding access, and you understand better the trial and error it took Jacobsen to find the right locale to source his salt. 

He tested twenty-seven sites between southern Oregon to the northwestern tip of Washington. Netarts Bay was the runaway winner. Compared to other coastal locations, Netarts Bay is a sensory deprivation tank. It has higher salinity since it’s only fed by the mild trickle of creeks. Its shallow water is calm, protected from the rampaging Pacific by a natural sea wall in the Cape Lookout State Park Spit. And it’s home to ten million oysters—a living first line of water filtration since the Mesozoic. In his first year, Jacobsen was hand-pumping 275 gallons from Netarts Bay into barrels he transported via U-Haul to Portland for processing. In late 2013, he took over a former oyster farm nestled in the southern crook of the bay and began producing his salt right on the shoreline where it was sourced.

The process of hand-harvesting salt is the culinary equivalent of erasure poetry, subtraction rather than addition. Or, like the apocryphal quote attributed to Michelangelo on how he created his masterpiece David—I simply carved away everything that was not David—Ben and team take thousands of gallons of bay water and simply remove everything that is not salt. 

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