Savoring the Salt of the Sea
Appalachian Salt Sovereign Revives Centuries-Old Craft
by Candace Nelson
While some may consider salt a simple ingredient, Nancy Bruns knows it’s often the very foundation of a meal.
It balances sweetness, helps suppress bitter flavors, and helps amplify other mouth-watering flavors.
Salt is the foundation of flavor – and her business.
Bruns, the co-owner of J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works located in Malden, West Virginia, is a seventh-generation salt-maker in the hills of Appalachia.
Along with her brother Lewis Payne, she revived her family’s 200-year-old tradition of salt-making in 2013. Since then, she has expanded the salty product line of her brine enterprise, and the small batch, finishing salts can now be found in highly acclaimed kitchens from coast to coast.
“I feel very humbled at the number of people across the country who support us and love our salt,” Bruns said. “It was my goal to become a national brand, and I think we are definitely getting that recognition.”
In the early 1800s, William Dickinson traveled from Virginia to the Kanawha Valley to establish a salt harvesting business by drilling into an ancient sea trapped beneath the Appalachian Mountains.
By 1851, his salt received the designation of “Best Salt in the World” at the World’s Fair in London. His business continued for 150 years and helped establish the region as the premier salt-producing region in the country.
Dickinson, his sons, and grandsons harvested salt on America’s oldest working salt farm for generations. Today, J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works creates a mineral-rich, pristine salt that exhibits a clean and complex flavor.
Bruns pays homage to that tradition by hand-harvesting finishing salt and using the power of the sun and mountain breezes to evaporate the brine and crystallize the salt.
Bruns, a chef by training, has more than 20 years of culinary experience.
“I grew up cooking with my parents. They loved to try new recipes, and my brother and I were often in the kitchen with them,” Bruns said. “It was a great family activity.”
Bruns attended Bucknell University before enrolling at the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont. She then owned a restaurant and catering business in North Carolina before selling it in 2008. During this time, she developed an interest in salts from around the world and began filling her pantry with fleur de sel, pink Himalayan, and more.
She then sought to marry her love for food and family heritage by reviving the family business in salt harvesting. With a lack of a salt producer in the Mid-Atlantic region, Bruns – the savvy entrepreneur – recognized the need she could fill.
Today, J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works offers six different types of finishing salt: Heirloom Salt, Ramp Salt, Smoked Salt, Ghost Pepper Salt, Mushroom & Herb Salt, and Bourbon Barrel Smoked Salt, in addition to seasonings and other products.
And, not only that, J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works has also expanded into curating Appalachian goods through its storefronts in Malden and Morgantown. The mercantile highlights artisans and helps provide an outlet to sell their products, ranging from pantry supplies and home goods to fragrances and gifts.
“We are part of a sustainable economic community. It is important to support other businesses in the region, and they support me,” Bruns said. “I buy as much as I can as locally as possible. The majority of the products we sell are not available from other vendors. I want to highlight the great work Appalachians are doing. My roots run deep here, and I want to see our region succeed.”
RECIPE: Watermelon Feta Salad with Appalachian Salt
While some people snack directly on J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works salt, my favorite way to enjoy the treat is on a summer salad. Of course, it’s absolute perfection when produce is fresh and in season. But it’s also nice to enjoy a summer salad during this time of year as a light and refreshing accompaniment to a winter meal.
- 1 cup feta cheese chunks (you can purchase these crumbled or buy a block and crumble them yourself)
- 2 cups seedless & rindless watermelon cubes (these work best when cut into about 1″ cubes, but they can also be in spears)
- 1/3 cup chopped mint leaves
- 2 TBS lemon juice
- 3 TBS extra virgin olive oil
- 2 TBS balsamic vinegar
- 1 tsp J.Q. Dickinson Heirloom finishing salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Whisk together lemon juice, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar until combined to make a vinaigrette. Set aside.
- Toss together watermelon cubes and feta cheese chunks.
- Top with mint leaves.
- Drizzle vinaigrette.
- Sprinkle salt to your liking.
- Grind a bit of fresh black pepper.
- Enjoy and pretend like the snow isn’t falling outside.
If you’d like a more substantial meal, place the salad over a bed of arugula and dress liberally with the vinaigrette.