11 August 2020, 08:04 AM
  • When Covid-19 hit, new speciality business Blackthorn Salt had to drastically rethink its plans. The husband and wife team Gregorie and Whirly Marshall and explains how, with an inventive blend of creativity, passion and staying true to the cause, they made it work
An unexpected reinvention: Blackthorn Salt

After visiting a graduation tower around 12 years ago, Blackthorn Salt‘s Gregorie was drawn to the unorthodox idea that this would be the best, most practical and effective way to bring back salt-making to the Scottish West Coast, where historically there had been lots of thriving local salt boiling enterprises. In this weird and wonderful method, salty water is trickled down an enormous wall of blackthorn bundles, evaporating all the time to produce even saltier brine using only the forces of nature: wind and sun. The trickle-factor means that we use approximately 85% less power to draw salt crystals from seawater than traditional methods.

Gregorie took a punt: this slow, sustainable process hasn’t ever been used to make sea salt crystals before; and, there are no other Thorn Towers producing salt today…

In Panhouse we complete the process and gather the crystals - our Salters have developed the ‘Blackthorn Technique’, involving alchemy and intuition in order to produce the perfect salt: a quest we don’t take lightly. Finally, after a week or so from leaving the sea, the delicately golden salt crystals are poured into wee recyclable boxes. There no additions made, no bleaching or chemicals involved, merely filtering. The result is a salt which restaurants and hotels, such as The Fife Arms, and chefs, who have had the chance to try it, such as Garry McLean and Steven Lamb, are excited about. The Blackthorn bark tannins lend the salt a certain depth of flavour, which is ‘zinged up’ by its essential smack of the sea (in a good way) – people report a sweetness that echos across tastebuds after the initial saltiness.

Nothing about Blackthorn happens quickly, so it was with great excitement that we had finally reached lift-off in March: tower snagging and pan experimenting done, boxes designed and filled. We invited some interested chefs and foodies for an informal salt session on March 24th 2020. We envisaged this would be followed by a series of traditional launch events for local enterprises, press, and some national plans to introduce Blackthorn Salt to the UK. None of this happened. Needless to say, we hadn’t dreamt that spring and summer would pan out the way it did…

At the start of Lockdown, we frantically busied ourselves with the immediate requirements of homelife, schooling etc. and put a halt on Blackthorn plans until the country returned to normal… or so we thought. We followed the news and were soon undeniably humbled by amazing stories of hope and basic human kindness. In contrast, we couldn’t help but feel that we’d been automatically defeatist, selfish and inward looking. Thinking hard, we realised we could contribute in a small way: no, neither of us are medically trained and shielding/child care needs meant complications with volunteering, but we had the ability to provide a real treat – Blackthorn Salt - for those that would be interested. The ‘Blackthorn Co-vid Rejig’ was born: the entire first batch was dedicated to the UK’s cause against Coronavirus. We were under no illusions as to the real difference we could make, but we aimed at least to spread some smiles and positive distraction.

We sent out 19 parcels, each containing a box of Blackthorn, a wee bottle of home-made Sloe Gin and three tickets for further Blackthorn boxes. Recipients were tasked to ‘Pass the Salt’ - they could send an image of tickets to others who’d be cheered by a free box of Blackthorn; with each subsequent recipient, we included three tickets and the final tier had one.

With ‘Support Salt’ we sought out kitchens cooking support meals for key workers and provided tubs of Blackthorn Salt to them, for free. The hope was that it would be useful and might at least bring an interesting diversion for those whose days were so intense.

Finally, we released the rest of the batch at the cost of postage alone. We called this ‘Community/Charity Salt’. The premise was still not looking for profit, nor even to cover losses, but for every box given, we donated the actual cost of the salt to The South Ayrshire Food Bank, Hospitality Health, and the National Emergencies Trust.

The Blackthorn Covid re-jig made little to no business sense, but it felt better than sitting tight when so many people were risking or suffering so much.

Now, emerging tentatively into the world of masks and distancing, we have to tighten our belts and get cracking. We are working away trying to reach those who would like to hear of us and are delighted to be stocked on The Cress Co’s online marketplace. Recently, we have enjoyed showing chefs and journalists around the Tower, including some brilliant and impromptu cooking/tasting sessions where the visitors have taken on the wee Esse and salt in the Blackthorn HQ – a Victorian railway carriage. Although great fun, fundamentally, these tours represent a special taster of the things that are important to us and part of why we are so passionate about insisting on trying to make the absolute best salt we can. Best in terms of taste, yes, but also in terms of everything else that brings that taste together – the environment, our priorities, the historical legacy of our location and our responsibility to the wider food world and beyond.

We look forward to the next chapter with optimism, hope and a readiness to work hard.