When you pick up a packet of salt from the award-winning Isle of Skye Sea Salt Company, you are holding in your hands something produced by sea, wind - and lots of hard work from directors, Chris Watts and Nanette Muir!
Their hands-on approach to their business means they are labouring at every stage of the process - from pumping the fresh salt water out of sparkling Loch Snizort, near Skeabost, to harvesting it from their solar drying polytunnel, performing quality checks and, finally, lovingly packaging their salt.
The Isle of Skye Sea Salt Company idea was first born in 2010, when Chris and his wife, Meena, had lunch with Nanette and her husband, Rob. "We were discussing ideas for a new business, as Meena and I needed to make a living in order to remain on Skye, which we love," Chris relates. "We threw loads of ideas around, but the one that kept coming back to me over the following days was harvesting sea salt from our beautiful, clean sea lochs in an environmentally friendly way."
With the two couples agreeing to develop the business together, the long process of establishing Isle of Skye Sea Salt began. "The salt can only be harvested from April to September, when the sun is strong enough to evaporate the water, so we had to trial it one summer, then wait for the next summer to set up properly," explains Nanette. "It was three years before we got into full production."
However, when scaling up production, they met with a significant challenge - where could they site their polytunnels? "Obviously, it had to be very close to the sea, away from human habitation, fairly flat and quite sunny," Chris says. "Finding the perfect site was a challenge, but it happened in quite a 'Skye way' in that, by just talking to friends, we heard about some land at Loch Snizort, which was absolutely perfect for our needs. This is where we now have our 'salt-houses' as we call the polytunnels." Now, their salt-houses lie, like transparent caterpillars, surrounded by windswept hillsides, dazzling views and - most importantly - lots of seawater!
Keeping their work natural and environmentally friendly is very important to the team. "I had been involved in environmental work for many years before I moved to Skye," Chris explains. "And the natural beauty of the island makes you want to preserve it. Our site at Loch Snizort has a very low impact on the environment. We cleared the initial layer of earth and rock, but we didn't take any spoil from the site, using it instead to provide a wind barrier to protect the polytunnels. This means the land can eventually be restored to its original state. The wood and steel used to build the tunnels can be re-used or recycled and even the plastics can mostly be recycled by specialist operators."
The procedure of making the salt is also kept as natural as possible. "We don't use any electricity on site," Chris says. "We create a pond base inside our polytunnels, into which we pump the sea water. Then, we just use the power from the sun to heat the water, while the wind provides ventilation to assist the evaporation process. Each harvest can take several weeks and we get up to 100 kilos per tunnel with each one."
The environmental ethos is carried through into the beautiful packaging designed by Eighth Day Design, which, while luxurious in look and feel, is made from 90% recycled card!
After their first year of production, the company moved from strength to strength - garnering awards and even appearing on television! The company received a Great Taste Award 2014 for the quality of the salt. In recognition of their hard work and environmental commitment, they also received the Environment Award at the Highlands and Islands Food and Drink Awards, again in 2014. The following year saw them win the Scotland Food & Drink Excellence Award for their category, underlining the quality of the taste and texture of their product. And, if you tuned in to series three of James Martin's "Home Comforts" on BBC1 in January 2016, you would have seen The Isle of Skye Sea Salt Company featured in an episode! "It was a long day of filming but a very interesting experience," says Nanette. "People were able to see inside our polytunnels and get a glimpse into how we produce and harvest our salt."
Other suppliers in the food and drink industry have also started to use Skye Sea Salt in quite adventurous ways! Did you know you can buy chocolate, popcorn and ice cream that contains Skye Sea Salt? "Scottish popcorn makers, Poporopo, feature it in their "Isle of Skye Sea Salted Caramel" flavour. Edinburgh-based Coco Chocolate produce a range of three different bars using our salt," Nanette explains. "We really enjoy forming partnerships with other people who find our salt adds a special flavour to their products."
But it's not just food and drink suppliers that love Skye Sea Salt. Nanette and Chris regularly hear from satisfied customers, often receiving photographs of meals their customers have created. "We recently received a picture of a salt-encrusted Yorkshire fondant," Nanette relates. "People are amazed that our salt really does taste different from other salts. Quite often, there is a 'Wow!' when they taste it for the first time!"
Both couples are thankful for the positive reactions and assistance they have received at every stage of the development of their new business. "We are really grateful for the support we have had from Business Gateway, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Highland Opportunity and, of course, all the residents and businesses on Skye who have, and continue, to support us," say Nanette and Chris.
What does the future hold for the Isle of Skye Sea Salt Company? "We hope to be able to take on some staff instead of doing it all by ourselves!" laughs Nanette. "Aside from that, we have lots of ideas we would like to try out... so watch this space!
For both couples, the business was established with the ambition to be known as an ethical, environmentally friendly producer of premium quality sea salt. Sprinkle those pure salt crystals on your food and relish the couples' hard work as they continue to achieve their ambition!