Nancy Bruns firmly believes you can’t get any more West Virginia-centric than mixing two of the state’s delicacies: salt from J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works and ramps.
After she was approached by several customers about making flavored salts, Bruns, the Salt-Works’ co-founder, said she wanted to find a recipe that would give her salt a flavor that stays true to the company’s Appalachian heritage.
“People would give me all kinds of ideas. Nothing was sounding right about going outside of our borders. I thought, ‘We just really need to stay true to our roots here,’” she said. “People are crazy with ramps, and I thought that was perfect. Nothing could be more West Virginian than that.”
And so, the idea for J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works’ entirely West Virginia-made ramp salt was born.
The salt, the ramps and even the packaging are all made in the Mountain State.
Dale Hawkins, the well-known farm-to-fork chef from Upshur County, forages and dries the ramps for Bruns, who uses a food processor to mix them with her family’s heirloom salt.
Hawkins, who owns the farm in Rock Cave where the ramps are grown and the Fish Hawk Acres farmers market in Buckhannon, said he shares Bruns’ passion for staying true to his West Virginia roots.
“Number one, when it’s fresh and local — it tastes better. It’s fresher,” he said. “When you keep the money more local there’s a multiplier effect. That money is spent in the community over and over again.”
Each of the Salt-Works’ salts are made by solar evaporation at the company facility on Midland Drive. The brine is drawn from 350 feet below the ground and then transferred into sun houses where it evaporates and crystallizes.
The salts are hand-harvested, and the entire process can take anywhere from five weeks to three months, depending on the weather.
Bruns adds the ramps to the finished salt product and packages the ramp salt like she does almost everything else here — by hand. Starting with 100 pounds of salt, she scoops a portion of it and uses a food processor to mix in the dried ramps. That mixture is then transferred to a large plastic bin where she mixes it with the rest of the salt.
The first batch last week yielded 1,600 one-ounce jars of ramp salt ready for packaging.
Because ramps are known for their strong onion flavor and pungent garlicky taste, the ramp salt is made in a separate room — so as not to alter the taste of other salts. Finding just the right ratio of ramps to salt, said Bruns, hasn’t been easy.
“I started with ramps and I had way too many. I cut it in half, then I cut it in half again, then I cut it in half again,” she said. “We’re down to a quarter-ounce of dried ramps per pound of salt. That is not very much ramp, but it gives it a lot of flavor.”
Ramp salt can be used with foods to give a dish an “oniony” flavor. Bruns suggests pairing the ramp salt with “something that can show off the flavor and the ramps can work with it,” like vegetables, hamburgers and sausages.
The ramp salt can be purchased online separately or as part of a set, which includes the Salt-Works’ original finishing salt and another new flavor: its applewood-smoked salt.
The smoked salt follows the same harvesting process before going into a smoker for three days.
Bruns has transformed a speed rack — normally used in restaurants to store large trays — into her salt smoker. She outfitted the rack with screens and drying towels, then connected a dryer vent to make the perfect fit for a process called cold smoking. The applewood is burned in a separate grill, and the smoke is suctioned through the vent and into the bottom of the smoker. The smoker is covered with a sealed bag, which traps the smoke inside.
“The smoke just penetrates all of the salt,” she said. “I didn’t want to use hot smoke. Hot-smoking, you can sometimes burn the salt and I didn’t want that flavor, so I came up with cold smoking.”
Friends and longtime customers have come together to provide Bruns with the West Virginia applewood she needs for the recipe — another testament to the company’s strong Appalachian roots.
“The batch I’m using now, a friend had an apple tree that fell down in her yard,” she said, laughing. “I paid her son to cut it up for me and bring it to me.”
The next batch of applewood is coming from a customer who lives near Dunbar.
Ideally, the smoking process takes three days to allow the salt to take on the smoky flavor, but it could take even longer with inclement weather.
“Smoking was definitely a process, too,” she said. “It was definitely trial and error.”
The applewood-smoked salt pairs well with roasted or sauteed vegetables, eggs, salads, or sautéed meats, Bruns said. The salt gives a dish a smoky or grilled flavor — without having to fire up the grill.
“Smoked salt is something that is popular — especially in restaurants,” she said. “I tried it out last year because I wanted to see how an applewood smoking process would flavor our salt, and I really liked how it complemented it.”
The Salt-Works original salt is something Bruns said she’s proud of and doesn’t want to tamper with too much. The ramp and smoked applewood will likely be some of the only flavored salts the company produces. Both can be purchased online separately for $5.50 per jar, or as part of an Appalachian Salt Sampler. The $20 sampler includes a one-ounce jar of the ramp salt, the applewood salt and the Salt-Works’ heirloom finishing salt.
The Appalachian Salt Sampler is packaged in a wooden gift box made by West Virginia woodworker Matt Thomas — sticking true to the company’s West Virginia roots from start to finish.
“That’s really what we are — a West Virginia company. Seven generations. There’s no reason to go any further outside of it now,” Bruns said. “It was important for us as we developed flavored salts to look in our backyard instead of the rest of the world.”
For more information about J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works or to purchase the new West Virginia-made flavored salts, visit www.jqdsalt.com.
Reach Carlee Lammers at Carlee.Lammers@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1230 or follow @CarleeLammers on Twitter.