Take some sea water, wood, plastic, a lot of ingenuity and hard work. Add a
pinch of salt — well, slightly more, say about 6,700 pounds — and you’re owner
of a thriving business that is creating more demand than it can satisfy.

After almost four years, that’s the story with Maine Sea Salt, the brainchild of
Steve and Sharon Cook of Brunswick. Their product is pure, unadulterated,
unprocessed North Atlantic sea salt evaporated from water collected off Bailey
Island. Sam Hayward puts it on the tables at his Fore Street Grill in Portland;
Peter Troy, chef at Browne Trading Company Market, says he thinks it is terrific
when it’s used as a finishing salt for plain and simple good food.

Mark Grobman at Browne Trading Company wholesale division says he
sends Maine Sea Salt to several other chefs, and that people often mail-order
the Maine product. Specialty gourmet food stores like Stonewall Kitchens and
The Portland Greengrocer, Provisions in Brunswick North Creek Farm in
Phippsburg, Treats in Wiscasset and State of Maine Cheese Co. in Rockport
carry Maine Sea Salt, and some firms that ship lobsters include a packet in their

“A one ounce package put in two quarts of water will make ocean water,” (or
the closest you can come to it removed from the coast), says Cook.

Cook uses a simple process to make his product, which was featured on the
TV show “Made in Maine” in 1999. He collects seawater in a truck on Bailey
Island and transports it to a large tank at his location in Richmond. Then he
spreads thin layers of the sea water on a special black material in the bottom of
four-by-eight-foot greenhouses and waits for the sun to do its work. Sometimes,
he reduces the water a little by evaporating it over a wood fire before putting it
into the greenhouses. The temperature on the black material can reach 140
degrees in the sun, he says. He continues to add more layers of water until there
enough salt to harvest, about two to three pounds per small greenhouse. Then,
he scrapes up the salt, and he and his wife package and distribute it, either by
visiting businesses themselves or handing it over to distributors.

This year, with the addition of a 30-by-100-foot greenhouse, Cook hopes
they will double their 2001 output of 6,700 pounds. This new structure has been
a testament to his determination and tenacity, as he has had to rebuild it twice
after coming up to Richmond and discovering it crumpled on the ground, done in
by high winds. He thinks recent design modifications will be successful and make
this model the template for 10 more of the same size. Then, he says, he hopes
he won’t have to turn down orders for large amounts of salt like the 35,000
pounds requested by a Canadian firm that wanted to package and resell it, and
he’ll be able to respond affirmatively to inquiries from companies such as
Williams Sonoma, which has expressed an interest.

Cook says producing sea salt is nothing new in Maine. “During the
Revolutionary War, there was a shortage of salt in the colonies,” he says. “Salt
works were springing up all along the Maine Coast. Mainers either boiled sea
water down in caldrons on beaches or let it evaporate in ponds, and then they
took it to Boston, where it was transported to other colonies.”

Cook, now in his 50s, says he and his wife started the venture when he
wanted to stop selling insurance and become self-employed. “I wanted to do
something different, something unique,” he says. “We were sitting around trying
to think of an item we could produce that would be of interest to people and
would be make a lot of common sense to be doing in Maine. We considered
jams and soaps, but then somehow, I came up with the idea of sea salt, and the
minute I thought of it, I knew it was a good idea.”

They researched in different stores to see what other sea salts were
available, and discovered that very little was out there, and of what was, only one
product, from France, was completely unprocessed and pure as the salt he
planned to make.

“The United States is one of the top producers of sea salt,” he says, “but
we’re practically the only ones producing gourmet sea salt that hasn’t been
washed and boiled, or dried in kilns or has additives. Ours is fairly granular, but
people who want to make it a different consistency can use a coffee grinder or
salt grinder.”

Because Maine Sea Salt has not been dried in a kiln, it is fairly moist. Cook
does not recommend putting it in an oven, but suggests that anyone who would
rather have a drier product spread it on paper towels and cover with more towels
and leave it for a couple of hours.

Cook learned to produce sea salt by trial and error. “I researched as much as
I could from books, and basically, I found out that no one was doing what I
wanted to do,” he says. “There were a lot of people building solar houses to
evaporate sea water to produce fresh water, though, and I reasoned that I could
use the same principles to collect salt.” He first tried a lean-to design, but
decided he was not getting full advantage from the morning and evening sun,
and changed to the A-frame design he uses now.

“I’m still experimenting,” he says, and explains that he and his father have a
running argument going as to the best design. “He believes I should keep the
greenhouses low to the ground, let them get real hot, keep them real tight and
then water will evaporate faster. I believe it’s better to have very steep sides so
the vapor can climb higher, and vents to let it escape.”.

Because he has received inquiries about smoked sea salt, Cook is
experimenting with a process to make it. Like the rest of his operation, the
experimental “smoker” relies heavily on and ingenious arrangement of simple
materials: an outdoor brick fireplace, some stovepipe and assorted pieces of old
metal. “It’s coming along,” he says, adding that a well-known gourmet shop in
Cambridge, Massachusetts, is very interested in the new product.

In the not-too-distant future, Cook and his wife hope to find property Down
East where they will be able to produce salt next to the sea, eliminating the
expense and time of transporting water from Bailey Island to Richmond. “I’d like
to get someone interested in investing in the company,” Cook says, “to help me
carry it to another level and be able to serve the demand.”