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FROM THE SEA | Eastern Shore company harvests salt from water around barrier islands

FROM THE SEA | Eastern Shore company harvests salt from water around barrier islands

It’s hauntingly quiet out on the bay. After having cast off from Oyster, a sleepy coastal town on the Atlantic side of the Eastern Shore, Anna and David Lee navigate their 23-foot Carolina Skiff about 8 miles toward Cobb Island – one of Virginia’s 23 barrier islands surrounded by an invisible, and delicious, treasure.

The Lees own Barrier Islands Salt Co., which specializes in harvesting sea salt, one of Virginia’s overlooked gems – flavored by the trace minerals found in the bays, and favored by foodies across the country.

About once a week, depending on the season, the couple makes a trip out to one of the barrier islands to harvest the salt found naturally in coastal waters. After reaching their destination, the Lees begin scooping buckets of water and pouring them into 50-gallon containers. No fancy machinery is needed; everything is done by hand.

They bring the water back to their processing room where it’s filtered and boiled. It takes about two days to brine. It is then filtered again and placed in firm, shallow pans that are gradually heated. Crystals slowly appear and sink to the bottom of the pan. The salt is then scooped into trays and stored in a drying room, where it stays for about a week before being inspected and packaged.

“We love that it’s so simple,” Anna Lee says. “It’s a communing of nature, not a mechanized process.”

Salt has a long, valuable history in Virginia. It was a critical ingredient for both Native tribes and colonists. Not only did it preserve meat and fish but it was also sometimes used as currency.

During the American Revolution, imported salt was unavailable,so Virginia’s government decided to create special saltworks to fill the demand. The state’s salt trade eventually dwindled with the rise of commercialism and new preservation technology. Now it exists mainly through boutique operations like Barrier Islands.

The company, which started harvesting salt in 2018, has grown quickly. It recently opened a new processing plant in Red Bank after outgrowing the previous one (a restored 1946 former Texaco station) in Cheriton.

“We'd been looking for waterfront property for years and couldn't pass up the convenience of our new location – it's a game changer when you collect ocean water every week!” Anna says.

Barrier Islands has also grown beyond just offering salt. The Lees have partnered with nearby businesses, including Chatham Vineyards for their infused rosé salt, Seafield Farm for herbs de seaside salt, and Laura Davis, a Chincoteague-based food blogger who runs Tide & Thyme, for the creation of small-batch caramels with sea salt.

Success has come quickly, but the concept was something Anna had been sitting on for several years, ever since her time working for McCormick & Company, the national spice manufacturer headquartered in Maryland.

While there, she researched sea salt for a new launch. Eventually, Anna left the job after moving to the Eastern Shore to be closer to family. But the idea of harvesting and selling sea salt never left her mind.

David grew up in Wisconsin near White Sand Lake and served 24 years in the Coast Guard. Anna grew up in nearby Virginia Beach. Both understood the value merroir would play in their venture. Much like with wine, the trace minerals in the environment affect the flavor.

Cobb Island, for example, sits along the edge of the Atlantic Ocean and is protected from development as part of The Nature Conservancy’s Volgenau Virginia Coast Reserve . That means the salt is deliciously pure – a vivid reflection of the surrounding water.

“The most important thing about our story is the quality of the water,” Anna says. “Being in 130,000 acres of protected water is our superpower. If we didn’t have that, we wouldn’t be making salt.”


“It’s not over-processed like table salt that’s intentionally stripped of trace minerals,” Anna Lee says. “Table salt is the fast food of the salt world and has a jarring, harsh flavor. Sea salt contains those trace minerals and is softer and sweeter.”

The Lees say their salt is meant to add flair. As a finishing salt, it should be added at the end of the cooking process for the best impact; its simplicity is designed to enhance even the most common cooking ingredients. “I like to put salt on simple dishes like grilled vegetables and steak, Anna says. “It’s less about the recipe and more about using seasonal ingredients and salt as the complement.”

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