Thursday, October 9, 2014

J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works and Charleston WV

This past weekend, I took advantage of an invitation from Nancy Bruns of  J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works, the restaurant's new salt supplier, to visit their facility and have dinner with them. They are situated in Malden WV, a suburb of Charleston, the WV state capital, a bit under a 5-hour drive from Winchester. To visit would require clearing my schedule on Monday and spending Sunday night in Charleston. But Ann and I needed some time away, just the two of us and even if it was not ideal spending 10 hours in a car, at least it was us-time with no dogs, kids, employees, or work to worry us.

About a month ago, I got a hotel room on the river in Charleston and asked Ann to clear her schedule, but never let her know where we were going or what we were doing. She was a good sport about it, mostly, though deep down some surprises make her a little uncomfortable: "What if I don't have the right clothes?"

Finishing Salt from J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works
Before leaving at about 10:45 on Sunday morning, I made some sandwiches for the road because I just can't stand fast food and eating while driving saves a lot of time. And because where are we going to find food better than I can make?

Building Sandwiches for our Road Trip to Charleston
Toasted focaccia topped with pesto, goat cheese, roasted red pepper, fresh tomatoes, and a Chianti-flavored salame from Volpi in St. Louis made wonderful sandwiches for our trip out. I made four sandwiches, two for each of us, out of half a loaf and Carter made a single sandwich out of the other half loaf and consumed it on the spot without so much as breaking a sweat. Teenagers!

Focaccia, Pesto, Goat Cheese, Tomato, Roasted Red Pepper, and Salame
I drove all the way to Charleston, so I couldn't take any pictures on our trip there, a real shame because the scenery was beautiful. We started with decent early fall color in Winchester which had faded by the time we exited I-81 for I-64 West in Lexington, two hours south of us. But that soon changed as we started to climb up from the Shenandoah Valley into the Allegheny Mountains and by the West Virginia border, the sugar maples were flaming and the Virginia creeper was a deep crimson. Even the hickories were starting to turn yellow, which they are not yet at home.

In all my days here in Virginia (and that is most of them), I have never been west of Lexington on what is now I-64/the West Virginia Turnpike. The scenery between the state line at Lewisburg all the way in to Charleston is phenomenal and it amazes me that there is a road at all traversing this rugged mountainous terrain. I have heard stories about people heading out west on old US-60; I imagine that I-64 shaves hours off that trip.

After winding through the mountains on I-77 from Beckley on, with one tight curve after another, it was a relief to hit the relatively flat and straight stretch along the Kanawha river leading the last few miles into Charleston. Driving the city portion of US-60, Kanawha Boulevard, along the river led us past huge mansions and the Capitol building in an almost deserted downtown. The streetscape along the river is well done and quite beautiful as you can see in the photo below.

We almost made it to the hotel without incident; however, we found the street barricaded right at our hotel with no access to the hotel from any direction. I finally drove past the barricades on the west side of the hotel and into the parking lot. The street was blocked for the annual car show, which is apparently a "big deal." You can see a couple of cars still in the street in the photo below, what looks to me like a mint-green T-bird and a candy apple red Chevelle Malibu rag-top, though my grasp of cars is pretty suspect. For most of the way from Beckley to Charleston, we were surrounded by about fifteen or so Virginia-plated new Corvettes. I guess they were coming to see the cars too, but the show was over and most were gone by the time we arrived around 3:45pm.

View from our Room: The Kanawha River

Just Below our Room in the Street
We brought a couple of bottles of Delaplane wines with us, a bottle of Williams Gap 2012 as a gift for our hosts and a bottle of Duet 2012 that we drank in the hotel room while winding down from the road and getting ready for our tour of the salt works and dinner.

We Took Some of Virginia's Finest to WV
I was excited to find a more-or-less local salt to use for finishing at the restaurant in place of the fleur de sel from France that we had been using. Nothing wrong with the French product, but I do like to keep our dollars as close to home as possible, and 9 out of 10 tasters preferred the JQD salt to the fleur when tasted blind. I found out about J. Q. Dickinson salt through the chef grapevine: a couple of chefs whose opinion I trust recommended it to me. So I ordered a pound of it and we tasted it blind against the other salts we had in house at the time. We were very impressed with the salt. Not only is it a lot more local than what we had been using, it tastes great too.

On arriving at the salt works on the grounds of a landscaping company about 10 minutes east of downtown along US-60 on the flats along the Kanawha River, we saw these very neat round stones. I have no idea what forces shaped them this way. By way of history, the Dickinson family started making salt on this property in 1817 and descendants Lewis Payne and Nancy Bruns, brother and sister, have revived the process on the family farm which is also home to another family business, the landscaping company.

How Cool are These Rocks?
Of course, to make salt from brine, one has to have brine and there are apparently large pockets of brine below the ground in this part of West Virginia, which in the mid-19th century was the leading producer of salt in the US. The brine for the current operation comes from a new well that extends 350 feet below ground. Brine is pumped into a large holding tank where it is aerated to oxidize the iron in the brine. The iron oxides settle to the bottom of the tank and the brine is taken off the top of the tank and flows by gravity to the concentrating beds in the adjacent greenhouse. As the sun concentrates the brine, impurities crystalize out.

Lewis Payne Describes Salt Crystallization to Ann; His Sister Nancy Bruns Looks on
Once the brine concentrates, it is removed to crystallizing beds in a separate greenhouse. In the photo above, you see Lewis explaining the process to Ann while Nancy looks on. The crystals you see are salt that have formed as more water evaporates. The concentrated brine is a super-saturated solution so any further evaporation will cause crystallization of salt.

Salt Rake; Beautiful Craftsmanship
Once the salt has crystallized, it is raked to the sides and allowed to drain. And then it dries for a prolonged period before being pulverized (if necessary), sifted, weighed, and packaged. The salt rakes, combs, and scoops that they use are all handmade locally and are true works of art.

High Tech Salt Drying Apparatus
Here you see the salt, wrapped in towels, drying before being packaged. After touring the salt works, I came away impressed by the amount of labor and passion that it takes to make, process, and package the salt.

Beautiful Retail Packaging
The retail packaging for the salt and the nigari is beautiful and simple with an earth-tone aesthetic. Nigari is a coagulant that is traditionally used to curd tofu and is the mineral-rich liquid left once the salt has precipitated out. I knew about its use in making tofu, but it never occurred to me to use it in making ricotta. I always make ricotta with vinegar or lemon juice, but Nancy made the ricotta for our dinner using her own nigari. Live and learn.

Ricotta and Hazelnut Crostini with Honey and Salt
The caterer had set out several plates of hors d'oeuvres including these crostini topped with the ricotta that Nancy had made, hazelnuts, honey, and a sprinkle of JQD salt for contrast.

At Dinner Outside the Salt-Works
After the tour, we dug in to a most delicious buffet of local foods from a local caterer. The quality of the food was fabulous.

Tomato Salad; Awesome Sweet Potatoes
Although the tomatoes were primo, it was the sweet potatoes that stole the show. They had a mild jalapeño dressing that made them spectacular.

Quinoa Salad
From talking to several attendees, all people in the trade and mostly foodies, I understand that quinoa is a grain that is being researched as a cash crop for West Virginia. It wasn't clear to me if the quinoa that we had was locally grown or not.

Swiss Chard in Beautiful Pottery Dish
This very simple salad of chiffonaded Swiss chard and a touch of ricotta was delicious. This chard is very young and very mild without any of the iron flavor that older chard gets.

Excellent Pulled Pork, Brioche Buns, Smooth Ambler BBQ Sauce
The star of the dinner was this pulled pork, which was as good as any pulled pork I have had in years. The brioche rolls that it was served with were absolutely delicious and made by a bakery in Charleston. The other accompaniments were cole slaw and a barbeque sauce made with Smooth Ambler Old Scout Bourbon from over in Lewisburg. The bourbon gave the tomato-based sauce a distinct vanilla and wood flavor that was great, but not on my pork, thank you. This pork was so good that it didn't want any sauce.

String Trio
We were entertained during dinner by this trio with the guy on the left alternating between his mandolin, his fiddle, and his banjo. That's some talent!

Kanawha River and Kanawha Boulevard by Night
After dinner, it was starting to get chilly so we headed back to the hotel in Charleston, which is as pretty by night as it is by day, maybe prettier. I'd like to say we slept well, but that would be distorting the truth. At first other patrons kept us up by making a ton of noise in the corridors and then the alarm clock in the unoccupied neighboring room went off at 12:15am and once again at 5:45am. At 5:45, we decided to throw in the towel and hit the road back. We got away about 6:20 and as we drove by the Capitol building, I couldn't believe that ours was the only vehicle on the road on a Monday workday. Can you imagine driving South Capitol Street in DC by yourself at 6:20 in the morning?

1 comment:

  1. A great trip indeed. So much better than the plain old salt mine I thought you were taking me to! ;}


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