Our new Sustainability Zone showcases brands that are paving the way in sustainable practices and we’re so incredibly excited to already have some fantastic brands on-board.

We recently interviewed Blackthorn Salt to hear about their sustainable journey and how they have incorporated sustainable initiatives within their company. Plus, they discuss why they are looking forward to taking part in Speciality & Fine Food Fair this year.

Please tell us about your company journey and how you started out

We make the best salt we possibly can, right here on the Scottish coast, using only West Coast seawater. In order to do this, we have revived and perfected the ancient Graduation Thorn Tower technique: we gather seawater, then trickle it gently down and through a large tower of thorns – or wall – packed tightly with blackthorn bundles. This spreads out the seawater, maximising its exposure to nature’s powerful elements, the coastal winds and the sun, which then evaporate around 80-90% of the water. The tower uses 85% less energy than the usual applied heating methods. When the concentration of the remaining liquid is salty enough, we gently warm it in the Pan House to draw off the crystals by hand: it is an extremely parent process - genuinely all about making the best we can.

The softly sepia pyramidal crystals are lightly tinged by the thorn bark. The Blackthorn Salt flavour profile, retains a strong, confident saline echo of the sea, but the blackthorn wood, whilst not drastically altering function of the salty flavour as such, adds a depth and mellowness which combines with the other trace minerals found in the sea. This means the mineral rich salt also leaves a moreish rolling sweetness that refracts the flavours on the plate and enables the ability to relish, savour and scrutinise every mouthful. We believe that this makes Blackthorn unique and love hearing what others think and do with the salt. Although only recently launched Summer 2020, chefs have already chosen to experiment with it (including 5 Michelin star restaurants), using it to finish off a bespoke cheese, incorporate into specialist charcuterie, add detailed taste notes to intricate deserts and cocktails, allowing it to delve deep into the marbling of aged beef and floating on gazpacho as well as using Blackthorn as their new ‘go to’ finishing salt.

We were due to launch just as the country went into the first Lockdown, initially we (along with so many others) hibernated. After a couple of weeks this felt defeatist, so we decided to gently and softly launch, using the entire of our very first batch to contribute to co-vid food providing causes including the South Ayrshire Food Bank, Hospitality Health and the National Emergencies Trust as well as providing Blackthorn free of charge to food centres for key worker meals.

Every day we look for more ways to lessen our environmental footprint and bear in mind our responsibilities to Ayrshire’s salt-making past and hopes for the future – we are always striving to improve and are particularly proud of our plastic-free wee box of Blackthorn: the perfect size for dipping your hand in, it also ensures that the precious salt is kept dust free and stored attractively even after opening. Our ethos is always to be the best we can be, absolutely in terms of taste, but also crystal quality - that ‘crucial crunch factor’ - and in our attitudes and methods. Blackthorn is a salt for the world, with a taste, texture and mineral profile that is uniquely incredible, but also of the world: sourced in nature and made with wind, sun and thorns.

why are you looking forward to taking part in Speciality & Fine Food Fair this year?

We are a young initiative, only launching at the start of the first lockdown, in April 2020, and after the turbulent time that everyone across the country has had, this would be our very first chance to show case, in person, what we have achieved at Blackthorn. We cannot wait to open the doors and show our salt to the world and are really excited about meeting people, sharing the salt with them and watching as they taste what it can do to flavours. The Speciality and Fine Food Fair is so well renown, we are thrilled to have been given a place in its new ‘Sustainability’ section – it matches our ethos and what we are, fundamental to our core at Blackthorn. We can’t wait to join the community of suppliers, buyers, others with foodie-interest and believe that we may have the opportunity to forge relationships crucial to our future growth and success that we wouldn’t otherwise have had.

What are your thoughts and opinions of the value of face-to-face events like Speciality & Fine Food Fair?

It is invaluable for us to get to meet our potential buyers, not only to explain and show what we are all about, but to hear from them and hear their thoughts, interests in the market. It is also important for us to be able to see what everyone is doing, as a source of inspiration and ensure that we are really doing everything we practicably can to keep our footprint to the minimum whilst ensuring our salt is of the quality that we are stringent about. After the year that we’ve all had, the opportunity of ‘face to face’ events takes on a whole new level, whose importance cannot be understated, but even if the event had to be reeled into an online version due to external restrictions, we would see it as a priority for an artisan producer business that really cares about their product to be involved.

Tell us a little about your sustainability credentials and how you are paving the way with exciting and innovative practises.

The tower is inspired by the great Graduation Towers of Poland and Germany from the 1700s onwards. These were large structures designed to make a concentrated brine for the essential salt industry of the pre-refrigeration age. Sadly none of these towers are used for salt production any more as industrial solution mining took over the traditional ways. The Blackthorn Tower therefore is the only working one in the world today and the first one ever in the UK. It is very similar but has a number of differences to its predecessors. We use seawater, not rock brine as our single ingredient. Seawater is only 3% salt (the rock brine of old was more like 8%) so the Blackthorn Tower serves to increase the salt content of the water from 3 to 22% which is a monumental task, using the purely the power of nature – the sun and wind. By trickling seawater down the thorny sides of the tower the surface area is spread out and exposed to the sun and coastal winds to the utmost. This means the tower reduces one load 26000L to 2,000L, entirely by itself, which is staggering.

Traditionally the UK has used fossil fuels, such as coal, for the whole of the process and now it is mostly oil or electricity that performs that task, often augmented by high tech machinery. The difference in reliance on fossil fuels is incredible. At Blackthorn, it is zero to get to the 22% crystallisation concentration stage.

We are delighted that only the final stage in the pan house is dependent on man-made power which means the liquid only has to reach 25% for the crystals to form. We have on-site solar panels which contribute to our energy needs and will always be searching for further improvements.

In order to ensure the tower’s efficiency and keep our footprint as low as we can, we have also brought aspects of the Graduation tower method into the 21st Century. We have incorporated valves and some monitors that measure the salinity levels and keep track of the rainfall and humidity. One of our salters is dedicated to checking the tower and the weather and will manually change the flow rates on each of its 54 wooden taps to make sure that the conditions are met to their full advantage. We also use a number of incredibly effective, but simple filters at precise stages which use no power or chemicals, but allow for maximum mineral retention, instead of alternative modern systems which can involve chemical cleaning or ion attraction, or the grisly old ways which involved adding ox blood or egg whites to coagulate impurities). We value these minerals highly in terms of the distinctive flavour and texture of Blackthorn.

We sit right on sea’s edge to take full advantage of the conditions there, both in terms of weather and environment, but also logistics. We are in the Port, so Blackthorn Salt is made and packed on site and leaves us ready to be delivered direct with no need for unnecessary further trips/ journeys around the country.

Our single ingredient is seawater, sourced from Troon, just 15 minutes up the coast (where there are no rivers to dilute its salinity and the daily catch is prized for its quality and freshness). We are always open to change and further innovation and are currently researching several projects which we hope will reduce the energy required further and ways to recycle the energy that we do use.

Why Blackthorn twigs:

  • It is environmentally friendly and sustainable – the bushels last for approx. 7-10 years, but also take 710 years to grow and so are a perfect circular economy in miniature. They can be reused, either to make smoked salt or churned back into the soil as a mineral rich fertiliser at the end of life (we are still exploring other uses, but we have a few years yet as the ones on the tower are only a year and a half).
  • This is the traditional way, tried and tested from Eastern Europe, we knew they would work. Blackthorn is an indigenous and incredibly hardy wood, unchanged since the dinosaur days and is ideal to withstand the constant saline trickle we subject it to.
  • The thorns themselves are amongst the longest around, sometimes up to 4 inches or so and therefore any liquid travelling down it has to cover a large surface area which in turn means a great surface area of liquid is exposed to the air and evaporation is maximised.
  • A plastic/modern alternative may be as or more effective but would not be sustainable.

Packaging:

We are proud to be the most environmentally and suitably packaged salt in the UK. The graphics have been designed by Blackthorn enthusiast and OBE designer, Janice Kirkpatrick, and at the award winning Graven Images in Glasgow, we spent an enormous amount of time and anguish ensuring that the packaging reflected our brand and our ethos, whilst being fit for purpose. 

The cardboard is not simply cardboard, it is 100% sustainably sourced, biodegradable and 100% recyclable. It has special characteristics which mean the outside offers a degree of protection against wet – and the salt within will not be damaged if the box is exposed to a spray which is then wiped – obviously it is not designed to be left outside or stored in an excessively damp area, which is unlikely anyway.

Cardboard lining on the inside does not have that finish and so is hydroscopic and will soak up any small dampness in the air which could impair the salt. Being a partially ‘wet’ salt as all gourmet sea salts are, this is just a bonus characteristic that we chose over the conventional inner bag which would bounce any internal wetness back onto the salt.

We chose boxes not bags to further protect the integrity of the flakes within, when in transit, in store and in cupboards/on tables. We chose not to have inner plastic bags and went to pains to ensure that the especially designed carboard lining would prevent leakage of salt.

No inner bag was essential to us because they are unsightly, messy, unnecessary the consumer has to open not one, but 2 packages, they then have to contend with the internal mess every time they reach for some salt, and at the end of the box, salt with inner bags require x2 bins etc, as well as and most importantly our overarching #plasticfree ethos.

The opening is deliberately designed so that the consumer can rip open if they like and the box can look as messy as other flake salt boxes in their cupboards (although without the added complication of the bag), but if opened with care, it has the added bonus of providing a great dust cover and keep it neat (yet still plastic free) so that it can sit proud beside the cooker without essential decanting, although obviously people can choose to decant.

The box is not made to last forever because the amount of salt held within is relatively small. The box has been shown to out-last the general wear and tear that is incurred by repeated reaching into it until finished. We have also thought hard about the dimensions and deliberately made the opening of the box more generously proportioned than most, so that a hand can easily dip in, even to the boom, to ensure it is always easy to reach the salt.

The boxes echo our ethos and everything about Blackthorn. The Salt is premium, with each £240g box being £6.40 – by using cardboard, we are proud to ensure that our customers pay for quality and cost of our salt and not the cost of expensive, environmentally painful and unsuitable packaging.


You can find out more about Blackthorn Salt on their website and don't forget to check them out at Speciality & Fine Food Fair in September. 

If you have a sustainable story and would like to apply to exhibit within the Sustainability Zone of the Fair, then please tell us a little more about your company by filling in the application form here.