Counter Intelligence: Back to the salt mine

Photos by LAUREN STONESTREET, Elle Effect Photography
Lewis Payne harvests salt from the evaporation beds at J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works, in Malden, using West Virginia-made wooden tools.
Nancy Bruns and Payne carry harvested salt from their sun house.
Garden-fresh vegetables are a perfect partner for a sprinkle of salt.
Summer corn, hot off the grill, is seasoned with just a pinch of salt.
Photo by NANCY BRUNS, J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works LLC
Coarse salt contrasts with the sweet taste of caramel and brings out the flavor.

By April Hamilton

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — It was love at first taste the moment I experienced the hand-harvested salt from J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works in Malden. A friend shared a sample of this exquisite salt and I became instantly hooked.

I clearly remember scratching the sparkling crystals between my fingers onto a slice of juicy summer tomato. Unforgettable.

I immediately scheduled a visit to the farm, where brother and sister duo Lewis Payne and Nancy Bruns revived their family’s salt making tradition, one that stretches back to 1817.

As Bruns, a trained chef, recalls, “The stars were aligned” when she approached her brother about resuming production as seventh-generation salt makers. They share a strong passion for food and family, and this was the perfect opportunity for them to blend their talents.

They broke ground, literally, in the summer of 2013.

Using maps and documents from the family archives, they located the original source of the salty brine and tapped into the well.

The brine is transferred to special shallow beds, where it is sustainably evaporated in greenhouses located right next to the source.

When I first visited, it was a steamy summer morning and Payne offered me a tour of the operation. Stepping into the greenhouse, or “sun house” as it is called in salt-speak, I was awestruck by the heavy perfume of saltwater in the air — I felt as if I were at the beach. As we strolled through the sun house, Payne described the intricate work involved in transforming the liquid brine into beautiful salt crystals, much of it done by hand.

My mind wandered to my kitchen and I started dreaming about all the creations that would benefit from this salt — grilled summer corn, crisp cucumbers, a steak seared in the iron skillet would all be perfectly seasoned with a shower of this coarse salt. And of course caramel, dark and sweet, would be an amazing backdrop for this lovely salt.

With peak summer sun, the brine evaporates into distinct and delicious crystals ready for their special packaging in about three weeks. On the hottest of days, you can actually watch the brine crystallize.

Production slows way down in winter, when it can take up to three months to reach your table.

“We consider it a product of Mother Nature, much like waiting for fruits or vegetables to get perfectly ripe before harvesting,” Bruns shared.

After my first visit a year ago, I went back to see the duo in action.

They now employ a small staff and have expanded from one to three sun houses. The evaporation beds in their initial sun house have been elevated to facilitate production, and the kitchen area where they package their salt has also changed since I first toured.

“The name of the company should be ‘Trial and Error,’” Payne told me with a laugh.

“It couldn’t be more rewarding,” he added.

Their salt is now distributed to many chefs across the country and has been featured in a wide variety of national media, from Heritage Radio Network to Garden & Gun magazine. It can also be found in area restaurants and is available for sale on their website (, and locally at West Virginia Marketplace at Capitol Market.

Just the other day, I was browsing at Tamarack when I bumped into Bruns, who was hosting a tasting table with fresh cantaloupe and tiny spoons filled with caramel. She offered me a sample of each, as she garnished them with a few grains of her salt.

I was reminded of that very first delicious taste. Hand-harvested heirloom salt, made right here in sunny West Virginia.

J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works will have an open house Oct. 5. Details to come!

Salted Caramel

Deep golden caramel, with a touch of salt, is an amazing taste sensation. Makes about 1¾ cups.

1½ cups granulated sugar

½ cup water

1 cup heavy cream, measured in a glass measuring cup with a pouring spout

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 teaspoon J.Q. Dickinson Salt

Combine the sugar and water in a heavy-bottomed medium (2-quart) saucepan and swirl to combine. Heat the mixture over medium heat, swirling to dissolve the sugar. (Do not use a spoon at this stage — sugar crystals will stick to the spoon and cause mixture to crystallize rather than caramelize.)

Dip a clean pastry brush in water to brush down any sugar crystals clinging to the side of the pan and swirl the pan again.

Increase the heat to medium high, swirling occasionally and brushing the side of the pan with the wet brush as needed to wash down any sugar crystals.

Now from sugar syrup to caramel! This will take 8 to 15 minutes, depending on your saucepan and your stove.

The sugar syrup will begin to take on color, turning from clear to light golden, then tan to copper. At this point it will darken quickly. When it is copper colored, remove from the heat and carefully pour about 2 tablespoons of cream into the caramel. It will bubble up and steam. Gradually add the rest of the cream, stirring with a wooden spoon (metal will get hot) or heatproof spatula.

If caramel is lumpy, heat over medium heat for a few minutes to dissolve the lumps.

Stir in the butter and the salt (alternatively, salt can be sprinkled on at serving time).

Enjoy warm or let cool and transfer to a pint jar and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks.

Recipe can easily be doubled. Be sure to use a larger saucepan to allow space for the bubbling mixture.

Now, a bonus:

Summer Carbonara

Serves 8.

After last week’s article on homemade pasta — and a number of requests for the recipe — I realized it needs to be shared. This recipe takes advantage of luscious egg yolks and Parmesan cheese used in a classic Carbonara, and pairs them with the bright flavors of summer vegetables, herbs and lemon.

4 yellow or orange bell peppers

1 pound dried Cavatelli or Orecchiette pasta (see recipe below for making fresh pasta, if desired)

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

3 medium zucchini, cut into ½-inch dice

½ cup thinly sliced garlic scapes, about 4 or 5 (alternately, you could use green onions)

1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves

Grated zest and juice of 2 lemons

4 large egg yolks

½ cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving

Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Roast peppers over the flame of a gas stove or on a sheet tray under a broiler until the skins are blackened all over, turning occasionally so the peppers blister evenly. Transfer peppers to a bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and let them steam until cool enough to handle.

Peel the peppers, removing as much of the blackened skin as possible. Cut out and discard the stem and seeds and chop the flesh into ½-inch pieces. Set peppers aside while making the sauce.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Pour in the pasta and cook until al dente, according to package instructions.

Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a large, high-sided skillet over medium-high heat. Scatter the zucchini in the pan and cook until just tender, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic scapes and cook until all is tender, about 1 minute more. Stir in the chopped peppers, thyme and lemon zest and juice.

In a bowl, whisk together egg yolks and cheese. Temper the egg mixture by slowly whisking in about ¼ cup of the hot pasta water (this keeps the yolks from scrambling when you add them to the hot pasta). Drain the pasta, reserving about ½ cup of the pasta water. Add pasta to the skillet with the vegetables, stir in the egg yolk mixture and stir to combine. Drizzle in some of the remaining pasta water to create a creamy sauce that just clings to the pasta. Season with salt and pepper and serve, sprinkled with more Parmesan cheese.

Fresh Cavatelli or Orecchiette Pasta

Makes about 1 pound of pasta.

Durum flour is made from hard winter wheat that grows in southern Italy. The powdery fine texture gives fresh pasta its tender bite. Resist the urge to use semolina flour, which is more coarsely ground and will not produce tender pasta.

4¼ cups durum wheat flour, plus more if necessary

1 2/3 cups water, room temperature, plus more if necessary

2 tablespoons olive oil

Semolina flour for dusting the shaped pasta

Dump the flour into a large bowl and drizzle with the water and olive oil. Using a fork, whisk the dough around, hydrating the flour. Add more water, a little at a time, until the dough starts to clump together and all of the dry flour is incorporated.

Ditch the fork and start pressing the shaggy mixture together with your hands. If the dough still seems too dry, add a little more water.

Turn dough out onto a wooden board and start to knead. Take the heel of your hand and press it forward into the dough. Pull back the dough with your fingertips and rotate the dough a quarter turn. Continue this process, kneading and rotating, until the dough has the texture of a damp handshake, about 5 minutes. If the dough sticks to your board, add a little flour and continue kneading. Wrap the dough in plastic and let it rest for 5 minutes to relax the gluten.

Divide dough into small pieces about 1 by 4 inches. Take out one of the pieces, covering the rest of the dough with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel, and roll, using your fingertips and palms, into long ½-inch thick rope. Cut the ropes into ½-inch pillows.

To shape the cavatelli:

Place a pillow of dough, cut side down, on the wooden board. Hold your arm out straight, with your thumb out to the side. Press down on the pasta square with your thumb and push the dough forward with a fair amount of pressure. The dough should follow the shape of your thumb, rolling up as you go into a long shell shape (it should resemble a tiny, plump taco shell). Continue with remaining dough pillows until you have formed all of the pasta. Place pasta shapes on a rimmed baking sheet and dust with a little bit of semolina flour to prevent it from sticking and set aside (or cover and refrigerate up to 2 days) until ready to cook.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until pasta is tender, about 5 minutes. Drain and serve as desired.

Note: To make orecchiette, follow the steps for cavatelli. After you form the cavatelli, grasp the pasta with your thumb and forefinger. Using the forefinger of your opposite hand, pull the pasta up and over the forefinger that is holding the pasta, exposing the torn gluten structure, and forming into shapes resembling little ears.

April Hamilton has always said, “Cooking is fun!” She shares her easy, practical recipes for delicious food through her cooking classes for kids and families. April’s husband and three daughters help with testing and tasting in their Charleston kitchen. April would love to hear from you at Hungry for more? Visit, and follow her on Facebook at

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