Walking on the pink salt lake in the Wimmera. Photograph: Hilary McNevin/The Guardian
A partnership between an olive producer and local Indigenous people in country Victoria has yielded an unlikely new harvest: delicious pink salt.
It’s the end of the salt season. Did you even know there is one? I’m wearing borrowed gum boots and standing on Pink lake in the Wimmera in western Victoria, which is an expanse of water about four times the size of the MCG. The chilly wind is blustering through any warm clothing we’ve been warned to wear and the sunshine is glaringly brilliant and harsh.
The name of the lake is self-explanatory – it is a delightful candy-hued, pretty shade of pink and while I’d like to think I’m walking on water I am, in fact, walking on salt.
The Seymour family, Jane and Neil and their son Richard, who run Mt Zero Olives in the Grampians, started harvesting salt from the lake in 2009.
“We were looking at ways of diversifying our products,” says Richard, which include olives, olive oils, lentils and chickpeas. “And we all knew about the lake.”
Seymour says that for many years the locals have been taking the odd bucket of salt from the lake for cooking at home but it hadn’t been harvested commercially since the 1970s.
In the mid-2000s, Jane Seymour decided to research the possibility of hand harvesting the salt.
The lake is Crown Land which meant for the next four years permission was sought from the various state and federal government departments that manage it. Jane started with the Barengi Gadjin Land Council, the traditional owners of the land, hoping they could approach the government together.
After four years of discussions, by 2009 Mt Zero and the Barengi Gadjin Land Council were ready for their first harvest. All the harvesting is done by hand and members of the local Indigenous community are employed to help with it every year, through March or April, before the lake fills with the winter rains.
Despite the vastness of the lake, the group target an area the size “of about two tennis courts and we move to different parts of the lake each year”, says Jane Seymour.
A wide-mouthed shovel is used to scrape back the top layer of the salt to remove any impurities and this reveals the beautiful pink chunks of salt underneath. The harvesters take up to 1.5cm (about half-an-inch says Seymour) from the top of the lake in the designated area. The salt is then put into 500kg plastic bins and taken to Melbourne where it is finished off – dried, sifted, milled and packaged – in the company’s warehouse in West Footscray.
From the harvest – a wet weight of 30 tonnes is taken to the city – the Seymour’s yield about 24 tonnes of salt which they package and sell to bakers for their breads, to butchers for their sausages and to restaurants, cafes and specialty food shops for consumers.
They flavour the salt with various ingredients too including local sea kelp, chilli salt and a new salt mixed with roasted kalamata olives, from the Seymour’s olive grove, naturally. Of course, you can buy it without any extra flavour – just as is.
Pink Lake salt has a great depth of flavour, it’s more subtle than highly processed salt and isn’t nearly as harsh and intense as some salts can be. Perfect as a finishing salt, while cooking, adding to dressings or on the table, it is regional, local and even seasonal … seems there is a season for everything.