For many of us, an article about an archaeological dig down the road from where we grew up might spark some interest. When the discoveries at the site on the East Coast in Loftus – on the North Yorkshire and Redcar & Cleveland border – include evidence of salt production from 6000 years ago, it would be difficult not to be impressed.
Eminent archaeologists are now certain that in the period prior to the building of Stonehenge, a community on the Yorkshire coast was involved in the manufacture of sea salt – and this discovery is forcing a change in how the Neolithic period is viewed.
Although evidence of Neolithic salt production has previously been found on mainland Europe, the Loftus discovery – dated to around 3800BC – is the earliest for the UK.
Pottery and other artefacts found at the site were of a type introduced by people who migrated from northern France about 4000BC, and it’s likely the salt-working technology came with these skilled European migrants.
Quite a story. And yet more evidence to add to our ‘Isn’t The North Brilliant’ archive. But for Richard Devany and his partner Becky, the subterranean discovery was to be the catalyst for a major lifestyle and career change.
Richard, who lives in Leeds, was enjoying a successful career in event management when like lots of us, the pandemic gave him a moment to think about the future: “I’d been wanting to branch out on my own – and was looking for a career change. I wanted to do something ‘with my hands’. I like working things out. I’ve always liked figuring out processes and putting things back together.”
Richard grew up in Skelton, which is close to the dig site and his family and friends are still based locally: “So the article from 2021 got my cogs turning. I started researching what was going on in this part of the world and found there wasn’t any salt houses…so thought…maybe there’s something in this?”
The first task was extensive research. “I wanted to find out if any existing brands were using YORKSHIRE – because that’s the USP.” There wasn’t: so Richard trademarked ‘Yorkshire Sea Salt’ and started to figure things out from there.
“Much to my partner Becky’s surprise, I took over a spare bedroom at home in Leeds and created a laboratory to start testing – to see how easy the process was to produce sea salt.”
For those of us who would benefit from some saline education: everyday table salt and Richard’s product are worlds away from each other.
Table salt is produced by firing high pressure water underground into ancient bedrock containing salt deposits (a similar process to fracking). During the production process iodine and anti-caking agents are added. Table salt is almost pure sodium chloride.
Richard explains: “With sea salt you get sodium chloride, but also approximately 60 different trace minerals and our product has far greater health benefits.”
Customer feedback from their recent debut at Malton Food Festival confirmed how little Yorkshire Sea Salt has to be used to get a wonderful flavour.
“Sea salt is affected by the water its taken from. The North Sea has quite a high minerality. Lots of people actually told us: ‘I can taste the sea’,” confirms Richard proudly.
Salinity of most UK waters is typically around 3.5% - but on the Yorkshire coast it’s anywhere from 3.8 to 3.9%, which is good news for the team, as that gives a high yield from the seawater harvested.
Events management aside, it does sound – as we chat in a Marske café metres from the sea – that there must also be a background and a special interest in chemistry? We have to ask: What did you do first? Did you already know how to produce salt from sea water?
Richard: “Other than the obvious: you take sea water and evaporate it…it sounds easy...
“There’s no manual to operate on a commercial level. With sea salt there are lots of varieties – from harder crystals to flakes. We wanted to create a soft sea salt that can be crumbled with your hands. In Europe there is a preference for flaked sea salt. Flakes are harvested at the point in the process when ‘pyramids’ form. Currently we have a hybrid product with flakes and smaller crystals.”
What was the first physical act?
“I Got some sea water. Got some apparatus: a big sink unit. A heat lamp. I’m not sure what the neighbours thought was happening?!
“It was a bit like being a scientist. Every half hour I’d record temperature and humidity. I’d experiment with how high the lamp was. It was all making data. I tracked how the crystals were performing. If it wasn’t hot enough, we were left with tiny little grains.”
How do you produce flakes as opposed to crystals? Do you have to intervene at different points?
“On a commercial level it’s not easy – everything from timing to temperature and humidity affects the product. It’s a constant monitoring process – and we’ve been learning as we go. Learning has been challenging. It’s been research, research, research…piecing it all together to make it work. It’s taken a year and a half to get to this stage. And we’re still learning now.”
Aside from the physical act of producing salt, the couple are working diligently to research and build their brand identity…and have created a robust business plan. Focussing on their USP (unique selling point): Yorkshire seawater producing artisan Yorkshire sea salt – and the future looks bright.
Richard: “Next I had to think – how do I do this at scale? I did have friends and family questioning slightly…but I had an idea – and wanted to do it. I tried to close out all this noise around me – and focus on the obstacles.
“There are only a small number of big producers in the UK and a handful of smaller artisan operations and ‘solar’ producers – who use polytunnels and have the sun act as the heat and light source. That’s seasonally restrictive and difficult to secure enough land. Also the quality isn’t what we were looking for.”
What was the Initial kit list?
“I looked around for what could we get, or what we might adapt to suit the process. First thing was a van and a 1000 litre tank. Unfortunately hand-harvesting with a bucket isn’t practical. We needed a seawater pump. Obviously seawater is corrosive, so we had to allow for that –and utilise 316 stainless steel wherever possible. That’s most suitable for operating in a corrosive environment.
“Once you’ve harvested the water, the next stage is to boil into a brine. We boil it down – it starts at about 3.5% salinity and you evaporate all the water to get to a 20% level. The more you boil sea water the harder it is to keep on boiling. The process of ions passing through a mass of salt and water (to agitate) slows as the salt increases. We use evaporation pans – essentially a big open sink – that had to be specially made.”
I’m still trying to visualise the very first bit. Do you take the van down to the beach or a quay? Did you have to approach the EA (Environment Agency)?
“Yes: I found out what permissions were needed. It transpired that if we don’t take over 2000 litres per day – it’s okay. Any more than that – and you have to get permission from the king.”
(So the Crown owns the seawater too? I stay engaged and try not to overthink that fact.)
“We harvest up and down the North Yorkshire coast to make sure we’re getting the purest, cleanest waters. Topography is an issue. Much of this coastline is cliff. We don’t harvest seawater from near stream outfalls from the land. And rainfall affects salinity. We wait a few days after heavy rain to extract water – to give time for the salinity to rebalance.”
The water is triple filtered down to 5 micron. 100 micron is the width of a hair. Finally passing through a UV filter, Richard then starts the process with a really pure product.
“We need to get salinity above 30% before crystals begin to form. It’s quite beautiful to watch. All the crystals start forming and dancing around – then once the surface tension gets too much they fall and rain down.
“We harvest, drain and dry our sea salt very slowly. The drying point is very important. Then we weigh and pack.”
It’s important to talk about the current ecological and environmental concerns around the treatment of our coastline and waters – and the impact not only on fishing communities – but also on businesses like the Yorkshire Sea Salt Company. Currently protests are being staged a few miles north at the mouth of the River Tees, because of serious concerns around ongoing dredging and the impact on the shellfish population.
“We’re very aware of it – and it’s one of the reasons we harvest water further south. We’ve scouted northwards from Filey. We’re not campaigning – but we are supporting. We have friends in the fishing community. We’re all connected. We’re at a point in society we’re not going to accept what’s happening any longer.”
At the heart of the Yorkshire Sea Salt Company’s philosophy is a commitment to be ethical and operate in an environmentally sustainable way. The team are starting with zero plastics.
“Because we don’t use plastic – the process has been more complicated. The correct packaging has been harder to source – and is more expensive. We want to be responsible, be it with energy consumption or plastic use.”
The business is using an Eco Pouch produced from 100% plant-based materials for their 100g retail product. It’s biodegradable, with the intention it’s a refill solution – to decant to a container at home. Richard and Becky have worked with a local ceramicist to produce a Christmas Salt Cellar this year. More evidence that a ‘creative’ and ‘local’ approach to a business challenge, is at the heart of what this new enterprise is all about.
The couple are drawn to anyone who’s moving away from industrial production. Who has a love of their own product – is invested emotionally – and cares about provenance. Like all successful enterprises, their business is constantly evolving. With an initial aim to get Yorkshire Sea Salt stocked in farm shops, delis, cafes and restaurants – together with strong online sales - the feedback has been so positive in terms of the brand and their product, that they’re now being approached by large companies who are keen to wholesale on their behalf. Yorkshire food producers are also beginning to use the sea salt in their own production.
But Richard is clear: “We don’t want to go too fast too soon. Ultimately we want people to enjoy our product – and getting it into farm shops and delis – is central to that.”
The current set-up is producing around 35kg of the finest sea salt per week, from 1000 litres of seawater – and the product is being sold in the 100g pack for retail customers and kilo packs for catering. There is a plan to add a 250g pack in 2023.
So, you’re in the unit today. What’s doable with you both working together?
“Over Christmas, we’re making up batches to build up stock. We’re also exploring running through the night – which would be a benefit from an energy perspective. There’s lots of PR and social media to establish a strong base. We’re selling our story. Establishing new relationships and collaborations. We’re focussed on the environmental front – and obviously constantly working to grow stockists.”
When Becky isn’t sea-salting, she also helps small British brands to upscale. She previously ran her own café and bakeries – so between the two of them there is a phenomenal skill set.
And so leaving Richard to head back to monitor his crystals, I take the opportunity for a bimble on the beach, with my very own pouch of Yorkshire Sea Salt (which later enhances both Calamari and Haddock like you wouldn’t believe).
The story of how the business acumen of migrants from 6000 years ago has inadvertently created a new and dynamic future for this Northern couple is inspiring and without a doubt lots more of us are going to be enjoying Yorkshire Sea Salt in the near future.
Buy Yorkshire Sea Salt HERE