Tapping brine reserves deep beneath West Virginia, a brother-sister team is harvesting remarkable salt. Here’s why chefs adore it.
Hidden 300 feet beneath the Appalachian mountains are the remnants of the Iapetus Ocean, an ancient sea. The forgotten subterranean brine reserves lay untouched for 600 million years—that is, until 1813, when William Dickinson came to West Virginia’s Kanawha Valley to prospect for salt. He drove hollowed-out sycamore trees into the ground, creating wells that tapped those pure, mineral-rich deposits to create the salt that would make his name.
Dickinson’s descendants have been producing salt on the original 60-acre farm on and off for seven generations. In 2013, Nancy Bruns and Lewis Payne, his great-great-great-great-grandchildren, revived the saltworks after a 68-year lull, reintroducing J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works to the world. Chefs have become its biggest boosters; Sean Brock of Husk in Charleston, South Carolina, says it makes him proud to be a Southerner. “So many things differentiate J.Q. Dickinson from other producers,” says salt expert Mark Bitterman. “It’s a historic saltworks. There are very few people today making salt from a well. That was a fundamental way of making it for millennia.”