Claire harvests a smart business idea from waves pounding Causeway coast

Interview 2-4-20 SM Farm

Claire O’Kane, 40, a Coleraine-based business entrepreneur, is passionate about the environment of Northern Ireland’s stunning Causeway Coast. She has always enjoyed time spent on the sandy beaches and regularly walks the sprawling and picturesque coastline.

She grew up in Coleraine and is now building a small food business from the waves that wash the Causeway’s spectacular beaches, long a magnet for global tourists as well as visitors from other parts of Northern Ireland.

Claire has just launched Mussenden Sea Salt, Northern Ireland’s first producer of natural sea salt, which is based in her home town.

She harvests sea salt by hand from the rugged coastline where the often turbulent Atlantic merges with the Irish Sea and from stunning beaches such as the picturesque Downhill Strand, one of Northern Ireland’s Blue Flag beaches.

She collects the salt herself in glass jars for a limited amount of processing at the small plant in Coleraine.

Her focus on this innovative business is on developing the project without adversely affecting the marine environment in particular.

She decided to set up her first food business from her experience of sea salt producers outside Northern Ireland. Many of the world’s top chefs also use sea salt for richer flavours.

The Irish Republic, for instance, has successful sea salt operations, including Achill Island Sea Salt in County Mayo and Duvillaun, a small business on the remote Black Island, also off the coast of Mayo. This business is actually owned by the Harnett family from Waringstown in County Down.

The new company was formed last year by Claire, a graduate psychologist with extensive experience in personal development.

Research into the sea salt sector and the extent of the market opportunity led Claire, who had always been keen on running her own business, to turn an idea into a novel small enterprise. She hopes to create additional employment opportunities in the area in due course.

Claire has also been influenced by international research showing that sea salt is purer and stronger than conventional table salt and so requires less in meals and can, therefore, contribute to a salt reduction regime.

“I had seen sea salt being used regularly in other parts of the world and subsequently decided to explore the potential for a product harvested along Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast, one of the region’s biggest and most popular locations.

“The water quality here is exceptionally clean because of its unique geographic location in the dynamic, fresh and invigorating coastal waters of the Atlantic and the Irish Sea.

“This leads to a very pure salt for limited processing in my plant. Harvesting and processing are carried out by hand to ensure a perfect and fully traceable sea salt,” she adds.

The salt, she continues, has been thoroughly tested and passed all requirements. Development of the new sea salt has also been encouraged by local celebrity chef Paula McIntyre and the very active Taste Causeway food and drink promotion body.

“Paula has been helping me with flavours and Taste Causeway has also been extremely supportive and thoroughly interested in what I am doing here,” she continues.

Taste Causeway represents the region’s successful and fast developing food and drink industry through a broad range of activities, including mentoring, marketing and business development. There’s now a significant cluster of artisan and smaller food and drink ventures in the area.

“Research also shows that sea salt is the least refined with no added preservatives, anti-caking agents or chemicals. Our production ensures minerals such as potassium and essential enzymes are preserved. The process also ensures flakes with a distinctive texture and richer flavour,” she explains.

The main differences between sea salt and the traditional table salt are in taste, texture and processing. Sea salt is produced through evaporation of ocean water or water from saltwater lakes, usually with a minimum of processing.

The processing leaves behind certain trace minerals and elements which add flavour and colour to the sea salt, which also comes in a variety of levels of coarseness.

Table salt is typically mined from underground salt deposits and is more heavily processed to eliminate minerals and usually contains an additive to prevent clumping.

The Mussenden Sea Salt is being produced in 110g and 45g glass jars and much larger compostable bags for chefs in hotels and restaurants.

The use of glass jars and compostable bags reflect Claire’s environmental focus: “The sea salt business has become my passion and also embraces my long-standing commitment to the preservation of the local environment and in particular not to adversely affect the marine environment.

“I’ve been appalled, for instance, by the amount of plastic bottles turning up along our shores, especially when I am harvesting the sea salt or just enjoying this spectacular part of Northern Ireland,” she adds.

Mussenden Sea Salt takes its name for the area around Mussenden Temple, which is located near Castlerock in County Londonderry. The site offers spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean from Northern Ireland’s dramatic coastline and pristine sandy beaches.

The temple was built in 1785 and forms part of the estate of Frederick Augustus Hervey, Bishop of Derry and Earl of Bristol. The temple is now owned by the National Trust and is a popular attraction for thousands of visitors.

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