In this installment of her Eat Ireland column, Deputy Editor Jocelyn Doyle takes a deep dive in Co. Louth.
The location of modern Co. Louth has a long history, inevitably tied to its coastline. This area once played home to the ancient Irish kingdom of Airgíalla, or Oriel; long before that, in an extraordinary feat of engineering pre-dating even the Pyramids, Neolithic tribesmen shifted boulders weighing more than 200 tonnes from Port Oriel along the coast and up the River Boyne to be the building block for the passage tombs of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth.
This place holds geological significance as well as historical. A massive tectonic shift occurred here 420 million years ago, smashing together the continents of Europe and Northern America. Ireland was formed when they separated 20 million years later. “This is the only place on the planet where ancient fossils from both continents can be found within metres of each other,” says Brian Fitzpatrick of Oriel Sea Salt. This unique story means that the waters here are of a quality usually only found at depths of a few hundred metres.
Our brains are designed to enjoy salt because it’s crucial for our bodies to function. Over the course of human history, finding salt was difficult, so craving salt was a survival mechanism. Not only is salt essential to our bodies, but it is also a fantastic means of food preservation. As a result, salt has been intrinsic to world history since the dawn of time.
Brian founded Oriel Sea Salt with John Delany in 2012, in search of a more pure and healthy salt. Oriel is the world’s only non-oxidised sea salt, which Brian explains: “All other sea salts are harvested in open air, absorbing oxygen as they dry out and taking on sharp, sour taste notes. Our salt never comes in contact with air, sand or soil, so it is extremely pure and crystal white, full of minerals and with no need for washing.” Oriel’s patented system was designed to harvest not just sea salt, but also precious minerals such as magnesium.
Oriel contains up to 18% minerals, meaning that it has up to 18% lower sodium than regular salt and over 10% less than most sea salts, meaning all of the taste, but in a much healthier product. Its other stand-out characteristic is that, because of its unique harvesting process, Oriel’s crystals are very fine, making it suitable as an ingredient, not just a finishing touch. This has made Oriel a favourite with Irish chefs including Ross Lewis of Chapter One, Ed Cooney at The Merrion Hotel and previous Easy Food guest editor Noel McMeel at Lough Erne. It’s also the sea salt used in several other Irish foods, including O’Donnells Crisps, and even features in skincare products such as London-based Neals Yard.
The company is big on sustainability, and has been certified by the Organic Trust, Origin Green, SGS and Good Food Ireland, to name but a few. As Brian says, “From the moment of Oriel’s inception, sustainability was at the core of our quest to become not just a leading product, but a leading manufacturer with sustainable practices and systems. Our equipment operates to the highest environmental standards; no chemicals are used, and we use a custom generator to clean our equipment using electrolysed water. Three separate heat transfer systems optimise the re-use of our energy, which is primarily steam and electricity. We re-use desalinated water to create steam to power the evaporators and hence reduce our electricity bills. We do not produce any waste and our target is to use or re-use 98% of the seawater we extract.” In August 2016, Oriel became the only company in Europe to be granted two PDOs (Protected Designations of Origin) by the EU Commission, for both Mineral Sea Salt and Deep Sea Minerals, validating the salt at an international level and making it, as Brian jokes, the “Champagne of sea salt.”
So what is this wunderkind of the salt world like to use? It’s ever-so-slightly moist and easy to use in pinches. “From a flavour perspective,” says Brian, “the Natural Sea Salt has a faint mineral after-tone that the Kiln-Dried variety doesn’t. Both varieties, while being strong, also have a smoothness and subtlety, a depth of flavour that allows chefs and home cooks to use up to 25% less of Oriel than of regular salt without compromising on taste.”
I’m especially intrigued by the whiskey smoked sea salt, even a whiff of which evokes images of wood fires and barbecues. “The idea of using whiskey barrels as the source of our smoke really appealed to us,” says Brian. “If it was going to be an Irish whiskey then, for me, there was only ever one choice.” Brian got on to Teeling and the rest, as they say, is history.” I can imagine this being an excellent addition to red meat; Brian’s favourite way to use it is adding it to a bag of unsalted cashews. “The problem is, it can be addictive and when you reach the bottom you just keep dipping and licking your fingers!” My habit of pairing sweet things with savoury leads to the delectable combination you see below, my new favourite summer dessert.
Oriel continues to grow and has just been launched in the USA through Bewleys Irish Imports. “But at the heart of what we do is health,” says Brian, “and we have been working with DCU to develop our Magnesium and Mineral extracts for uses in healthcare, wellness and functional water and beverage. These are in a concentrated pure liquid form, absorbed to the blood in under 30 minutes with benefits in cardiovascular, inflammatory and neural conditions.”
Oriel Magnesium and Mineral extracts are currently used in functional beverage and water products, dietary supplementation, skincare, cosmetics and burn and wound healing products, with new uses being discovered almost daily. “The world is our oyster, the ocean our shell and our Sea Salt and Magnesium extract our pearls. This journey of exploration is just beginning.”