What brought you to Wales?

I came to Bangor University with my then-boyfriend, and now husband, David, 40 years ago. We supplemented our student income by growing oysters and mussels, and that developed into a seafood wholesale business. People used to buy live lobsters from us, and they were interested in just looking at them in tanks, so we made an aquarium which became Anglesey Sea Zoo. We did that very happily for 15 years.

Alison and David Lea-Wilson and dogs stood next to blue and white striped shed with dogs infront of the Menai Strait
Alison and David Lea-Wilson, Halen Môn

How did the salt-making start?

Tourism is very seasonal. We were doing well in the summer months, but we wanted to employ the staff whom we’d otherwise have to lay off in winter. So we looked for other things to do with the sea water and came up with sea salt. Ten years ago we sold the zoo; three years ago we built our new sea salt factory and the visitor centre. We designed the factory with a viewing corridor, and we also do tutored tastings. We sell lots of salt in the shop, along with products that use our salt to season it, and also lovely Welsh crafts.

Why is the Menai Strait so good for making salt?

It’s very clean. We knew that the water was very pure because we were breeding seahorses and they’re incredibly picky and fragile. We don’t have any heavy industry or large ships. We also have really powerful tides that come in twice a day, so we always have clean water to draw from. We have a licence to abstract the sea water, for which we pay a rent to the Queen.

Aprons hanging in Halen Môn factory
Halen Môn, salt production
Production of Halen Môn salt

How do you actually turn water into salt?

We pump the water into our plant room and it’s concentrated by heating it in a vacuum. Then we put the brine into crystalliser tanks and more of the fresh water is driven off as steam. When the brine becomes so strong that it can’t hold any more salt, the salt begins to crystallise out. Every morning the salt harvesters come in and scoop the crystals out, rinse them, dry them and pack them, so it’s all hand-made. Our staff are mainly local and Welsh-speaking; we see ourselves as part of the community. We buy locally wherever we can, to cut down our carbon footprint. We try and waste as little, and recycle as much, as possible. We were given the Queen’s Award for sustainability last year, and that was a real thrill.

Isn’t salt… well, salt?

The taste is very different to any other sort of salt. We rinse ours in brine, taking off the excess calcium, which is what causes the bitter aftertaste you get sometimes in unrinsed salt. It means that Halen Môn has got an almost sweet taste to it. We also put a lot of effort into making sure the flakes maintain their integrity.

taster bowls of spiced salt
Halen Môn taster bowls

Are big flakes important, then?

Chefs like the large crystals because they don’t melt into hot food and turn into a puddle of brine. And you get that lovely crunchy, salty hit when you bite into it. But we also do a finer flake, and can grind the salt in-house for clients who are using it for things like crisps or butter. Green & Blacks chocolate like a very specific flake which is large enough to give a slight crunch, but not too much.

Where do you sell your salt?

It’s used all over the world. We sell into the EU, North America, Australia, Japan, the Middle East - wherever people really appreciate good ingredients. We work with famous chefs like Heston Blumenthal and Gordon Ramsay, and also local restaurants like the Marram Grass and Dylan’s. Our local butcher in Menai Bridge was our first customer and remains so, which is lovely.

Salt packaged on shelves in warehouse
Staff in Halen Môn gift shop
Pure white sea salt, branded and packaged.
Halen Môn from warehouse to store

You’re the first Welsh PDO (Protected Designation of Origin)…

We’re the first British salt PDO, too. It’s really important to us because it’s a mark of quality and authenticity. It shows that there’s no other salt like ours. It’s made by hand in Wales, so it’s part of the Welsh seascape that you’re eating. We’re a premium product that can command a premium price. And we make no apology for the price: we believe that it’s the best in the world, and you have to pay for that.

Blue and white striped beach hut on the Menai Strait
David Lea-Wilson collecting salt
Menai Strait, Menai, Anglesey

What else do you produce?

Over the years we’ve brought out a range of flavoured salts. We’ve also got some delicious salty and sweet spreads, ketchups, and smoked products. We’d been supplying Heston Blumenthal at the Fat Duck for years, and he asked us if we could smoke water for him. We didn’t think it was possible, but it is. Who knew? Our Oak Smoked Water was voted ‘Best Ingredient’ at the 2017 World Food Innovation Awards.

Halen Môn gift shop products
Halen Môn gift shop

What’s the local food scene like?

It’s developed hugely, especially in the last five years. We now have loads of restaurants on Anglesey which we can recommend to people, including a Michelin-starred restaurant in Menai Bridge, Sosban & The Old Butchers. The local produce is great, too: we love the local lamb and beef, and the sea gives us beautiful mussels, oysters, fantastic wild sea bass, lobsters and crabs.

What’s Anglesey like as a place to live and work?

David and I have lived here for more than 40 years, and it’s very much our home. Wales is very embracing, very nurturing. You can be yourself in Wales. You’re not judged by how much you earn, the car you drive or the clothes you wear. It’s a fantastic place to live and to do business.