You Can Farm Salt in the Hamptons

Amagansett Sea Salt
Amagansett Sea Salt,

I’m from a land called upstate so, by my standards, Steven Judelson doesn’t look, or talk, like a farmer. In fact, he’s not like any farmer I’ve ever met before—he’s a salt farmer. How has no one thought of harvesting salt on the East End before? Here we are, surrounded by the salty sea. The Native Americans had their ways of gleaning salt from the water—what have we locavores been waiting for?

Judelson and his wife Natalie went into the salt business full-time just last year. Several years ago, when Judelson’s real estate business had slowed way down, Natalie told him, “Go and do something.” So he took to hauling in buckets of seawater.

The couple has been producing their own salt for about 15 years. In the past they made a few ounces about every six months by evaporating a few gallons of seawater.

Today their company, Amagansett Sea Salt, strives to keep up with buyers—selling as much as five pounds at a time, derived from their 500-gallon evaporation system.

Judelson tells me that last year was “all about who would buy it.” This year they’re going great guns at the East Hampton, Montauk and Sag Harbor Farmers Markets. Their salts are also available online and from the Wolffer Estate Vineyard gift shop in Sagaponack.

One gallon of local seawater evaporates down to about three ounces of salt. But it varies. As Judelson told me, “It’s not science, it’s not art. Each time it’s a little bit different.” He’s enthralled by the ever-changing nature of the ocean. He told me that at different times of the year the water, and hence the salt, has a different flavor. His eyes sparkled when he pointed out that the water changes from day to day, “it could be clear or green or very blue.” It’s apparent that he loves what he does. You may be wondering what that is.

First he takes in local seawater—he does not flood a salt plain as many traditional salt farmers do—he fills 55-gallon drums with the local water. Then it undergoes filtering and “sedimenting” to render it crystal clear. The water is then “planted” (poured) into large food grade plastic trays with covers. These trays are set up on land the Judelsons have leased from the Peconic Land Trust. The East End’s first salt farm.

There the water is left to evaporate, courtesy of the sun. But never at precisely the same rate. This solar evaporation on a natural basis is a function of temperature, wind velocity and surface area. Judelson is getting good at predicting the outcome. Sometimes he lets it ride out its natural course, sometimes he adds more water to a tray already in process. And, when it just doesn’t seem to be a good batch, he gives it back to nature.

Judelson is assisted this summer by intern Isabelle Hanson from Huntington. He has traveled the world to make a study of different salt-making techniques.

And what has been his wife Natalie Judelson’s contribution to the salt business, besides willing it into being with her initial command? She follows her own inspiration and gives the salt unique flavors. Of course they leave some of the salt they produce unflavored, plain.

Natalie has developed flavors that include Southampton (featuring Madagascar vanilla, intended for both sweet and savory dishes), Bridgehampton Blend (with dill and fennel seeds for flavoring poultry or fish) and Orient Point Blend which, with its Sichuan peppers and ginger, has an Asian or “Oriental” flavor profile. She plays with different flavors, at first just doing a limited run of new varieties. Next week look for their new Lazy Point Blend that will feature lime zest and mint – perfect for a margarita or mojito.

The Judelsons are currently working with Wolffer winemaker Roman Roth to develop some wine-flavored salts. How local is that?

This year was all about “where can we bring this?” Well, some of the East End restaurants now using these local salts include South Edison in Montauk and Nick & Toni’s in East Hampton. Bulk customers include a restaurant in Philadelphia. And, if last year is any predictor, they will sell out all of their flavors come holiday gift-giving season. Judelson describes their first holiday season is business as “out of control.” I bought a jar for my parents’ anniversary last fall. Because it said “Sag Harbor” on it, it seemed special. They really liked the flavor. I tried it for the first time at last Saturday’s Sag Harbor Farmers Market. Intern Isabelle encouraged me to just try two or three crystals on a small slice of cucumber. It was very good indeed, bright without bitterness.

Amagansett Sea Salt Co.,, 631-731-3053.