Teresa Smithmyer's home, the site of Bulls Bay Saltworks, rests snugly at the dead-end of a dirt road in McClellanville, about an hour north of Charleston. Scores of scuppernongs cling to a chain link fence that divides the house and an abundant vegetable garden from the additional acreage where two greenhouses, each stretching 84 feet, stand side-by-side. Chicks barely two weeks old scamper across the dirt floor of a coop behind the house. Honey bees zip busily in and out of a neighboring apiary. The air smells pleasantly of smoldering oak wood from a shipping container where smoked sea salt absorbs flavor. Cooper, one of Smithmyer's three dogs and undoubtedly the most outgoing, tails Smithmyer everywhere she goes. The space is comfortable and thriving. Everywhere you look, plants are growing, hearts are beating, and just behind the doors of the adjacent greenhouses, molecules are slowly binding together to form clean, crystalline salt.
It's early, but the greenhouse we step into is already steamy. "We typically start at 7:30 and by 9 or 10, everybody's out because it's just too much," says Smithmyer. But when it comes to growing salt crystals from the water, the heat is your friend. Solar fans spin on one end of the greenhouse and draw out the evaporation that steadily rises above hundreds of shallow containers filled with water from Bulls Bay. Each are at a different stage of production. "See those things floating on the surface?" asks Smithmyer pointing to white-ish residue in one of the containers. "That's calcium salt. It's kind of tasteless and powdery if you were to dry it out. That's our first indication that the salinity has become more concentrated and that we're about to make more salt."
She picks up a container with large crystals ready for harvest and pours the remaining water into another container still in its early stages. The fully-formed crystals have to be harvested before all of the water evaporates and magnesium develops. "Magnesium is edible but bitter, so we harvest the salt before that gets locked in," she explains. She picks up another container, scrutinizes it, and tilts it toward us. "See how this salt is caking up?" she asks. "That's a sign that it's got a lot of magnesium in it. We can do two things with this. We can use it as epsom salt, like bath salt, or we can add more raw water to it, redissolve it, and pull more good edible salt out of it."
The process requires constant maintenance, especially in the summertime when the water can be prone to algae and the containers need to be cleaned regularly. It's a raw product, so environmental factors are at play. Smithmyer and her crew have to walk the rows of containers and measure salinity, transfer and compile water, harvest selectively, clean when appropriate, and begin again.
- Ashley Hay Mitchell
- Smithmyer, pictured here in her greenhouse, rises early to tend to the growing salt crystals
Some of the freshly harvested crystals are transferred to smokers — oak wood for their Smoked Sea Salt and chopped Willett barrels for the Bourbon Barrel Smoked Flake. Local cocktail mix purveyor, Bittermilk, uses the same barrels for their Old Fashioned blend before handing them off to Smithmyer. Other crystals are exposed to fans and heat lamps until bone dry. The larger crystals become Carolina Flake while the smaller ones are thrown in a grinder for Charleston Sea Salt. Smithmyer also collaborates with Charleston-based Red Clay Hot Sauce to source leftover spices to grind with the salt flakes and make Red Mash Sea Salt.
In the cycle of sourcing local, her salt is used in turn by several area chefs and restaurateurs. Will Fincher of Obstinate Daughter says the restaurant uses the Carolina Flake on their flatbread and hand-grind Smoked Sea Salt over Geechie frites made from polenta grits. "It's a very pure salt, and we try to highlight local flavors as much as possible. You know how local oysters just have that particular flavor? The salt matches that and everything that we're doing here."
"Salt is everything to us. I couldn't imagine any of our cookies without having that bite of salt on them," says Harbinger co-owner Greer Gilchrist. "It adds so much and really brings out the flavor of the chocolate." Almost all of their decadent cookies get a generous sprinkle of Carolina Flake or Smoked Sea Salt on them. "We also have a peach donut that we top with rosemary salt. We mix the Carolina Flake with rosemary in a spice grinder."
- Ashley Hay Mitchell
- Bulls Bay produces a variety of salt, from 'carolina flake' to 'red mash sea salt'
There's no question that Smithmyer's quality product comes from quality surroundings. The small fishing community is bordered on one side by 225,000 acres of the Francis Marion National Forest and on the other by the pristine Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. The waters of Bulls Bay, a hub for shellfishing, are heavily regulated by the Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC). There are no major rivers or streams connected to the Bay, keeping the salinity higher and preventing runoff and pollution from accessing the area. Smithmyer goes a step further by having the water tested in addition to closely watching DHEC reports. "We're not mandated to have the water quality tested, but we do because it's good practice. You could get water from Folly Beach and make salt but ... I wouldn't," she laughs.
Smithmyer and her crew collect a thousand gallons of water at a time — always at high tide and never following rainfall to ensure the salinity is high. In a single month, they might collect eight to 10 thousand gallons of water.
"Sometimes we go back twice in one day if there's a super king tide that we can access," she says, "and if there's a big storm coming, we stockpile water so we've got lots on hand if the salinity drops." Their collection site is expansive and serene with two access points to the water — a natural walkway of earth that juts into the open marshes or a dock built on a winding creek. "If the salinity of the water is lower than usual, I might collect from the dock, but I prefer to get it right here," she says gesturing to the marsh. "When the water creeps in, it redissolves all the salt that's stuck to the spartina grass, so it's actually saltier and less turbulent because it's just oozing in a calm way."
Smithmyer lived in Idaho, Alaska, Oregon, and South Florida before she landed in McClellanville. Her company has been shaped by this community, beginning with a hog roast thrown for neighbors. "We decided to brine the hog with seawater and thought, 'Hey, let's boil this water and see if we can get salt to season the hog with.' It just took off from there."
When she needed a location to source water, community members stepped in to help her by spreading the word. Eventually, a local couple offered up their land — the location she now uses. ("Yeah, they get a lifetime of salt," she laughs.) "McClellanville is a great community," she says. "Everyone is really supportive of one another. It's all just sort of progressed very ... naturally."