CHATHAM – Isak Dinesen once said, “The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the sea.” Salt water, specifically from the shores of Cape Cod, is also what Paul Shibles uses to create his popular jars of 1830 Sea Salt, which he makes in Chatham the old-fashioned way.
In the mid-1800s, a major industry on Cape Cod was salt harvesting. Back then, seawater was evaporated on large beds covered with pointed capped roofs that either rolled back or spun to one side to allow the sun to shine on them. Well before the age of refrigeration, the salt was largely used for the preservation of fish.
“There's a real history of how this started,” Shibles said. “How did they keep cod fresh? If you've got to keep it fresh for more than a day, sea salt's the only way to go.”
Now salt is an important staple in most cuisine, but while much of the salt people purchase on grocery store shelves got there via technology and machines, Shibles prefers doing his harvesting the way it was done in the 19th century—by hand, using the power of the sun.
Shibles was part of the entrepreneurial side of Cape Abilities, a company that serves individuals with disabilities through education, counseling, and various opportunities including employment. He took over the salt works that is now 1830 Sea Salt six years ago from Janice Burling and Penny Lewis, who previously called it Cape Cod Saltworks.
“They were moving off-Cape so I took it over,” said Shibles.
For the first few years of the new-ish company it was never open to the public. But as the demand for Shibles's product grew, and with it the need for a centralized location, he set up shop roughly a year ago on Meetinghouse Road in Chatham, moved his evaporation beds into a large greenhouse, and has slowly been creating a welcoming venue where visitors can not only purchase his salt, but see the process of sea to table.
“If you enjoy watching paint dry you're going to love it here,” Shibles said.
Inside the greenhouse is a series of rubber-lined flat beds that Shibles fills with a specific amount of filtered seawater, which, thanks to temperatures of 120 degrees or more, evaporates away, leaving glittering crystals of sea salt. Those crystals are then raked into piles and scooped into buckets with holes in their bottoms for further draining. Then it's off to the dry room, a climate-controlled, dehumidified area where the salt is further evaporated, jarred, or prepared for infusion with herbs and spices.
Other countries where salt is harvested are drier in climate, allowing faster evaporating times. The Cape, on the other hand, can prove tricky with its wet springs that can often become damp summers. Shibles prefers long stretches of sunshine and no rain as that allows more thorough evaporation.
“I'll leave it for days as long as I know it'll be good weather,” he said. “But the key thing is the dry room.”
While it sounds like a fairly breezy endeavor, Shibles said that, depending on the weather, the evaporation process alone can take a week or more.
“I've owned other businesses before but this is unique,” Shibles said. “This has pride in it. It's definitely a lot of work, and is very time consuming, but I don't mind it.”
Shibles prides himself on having an all-natural product that's as locally sourced as possible, though some of the herbs are grown elsewhere. But the salt is all from Cape shores, from Dennis to Orleans. In fact, Shibles has no qualms when it comes to telling people his sea salt is the best, largely because of how it's made.
“I'll give you salt that's regular salt and I'll compare it with mine, I'll even compare it with products from people who do what I do and I'll tell you that I'm better,” he said.
Customers eagerly scoop up his salt infusions, which he said were inspired by Cape Cod Saltworks original Herbs de Provence. Shibles offers that, as well as garlic, a lemony seafood seasoning, and even chipotle, which has a smoky flavor and, as he said, appeals to visitors from the South.
“If you just bought herbs de Provence by themselves, it's just seven different herbs and is just a flake,” he said. “Once I add the sea salt, it really does make it blend, so when you put it on your food it blends.”
While some balk at the price tag ($9 for a 2.5-ounce jar of unseasoned salt and $12 for infused), Shibles said the majority of customers understand not only the importance of shopping local, but also just how much goes into making quality products.
“When I say work, I'm getting water, then I'll be in the greenhouse for three hours (at 120 degrees),” Shibles said. “There are deliveries to make. I'm exhausted at the end of the day, but it's fun. The people I meet have been phenomenal.”
When it comes to 1830 Sea Salt, it doesn't get much more local.
“This is local,” Shibles said. “This is 100 percent Cape Cod.”
For more information about 1830 Sea Salt, stop by their facility at 108 Meetinghouse Rd. in South Chatham or visit 1830seasalt.com.