St. Petersburg's Maureen Cacioppo hand-harvests sea salt from the shores of Florida

She spends hours in the waters around the Tampa Bay area, carrying 5-gallon buckets of water from the ocean to her car. From there, it can take anywhere from four days to two months to extract the salt from the water and turn it into a finished product sold at local markets and stores.

Published August 14 2017
Updated August 16 2017

ST. PETERSBURG

We are standing in the sand, deciding whether to traverse a pool of water the tide just brought in.

Maureen Cacioppo, 35, owner of small-batch salt company Florida Pure Sea Salt, and I are at a beach near the Skyway Bridge Fishing Pier. We are trying to find an area clear of seaweed and people.

This is our second encounter. At our first, I learned that the "hand harvested" phrase on each jar of Florida Pure Sea Salt is no exaggeration. That Cacioppo spends hours in the waters around the Tampa Bay area, schlepping 5-gallon buckets of water from the ocean back to her car. That, from there, it can take anywhere from four days to two months to extract the salt from the water and turn it into a finished product sold at local markets and stores.

Cacioppo flicks off her sandals and starts walking into the pooled water. Definitely too deep to drive through. Maybe we walk? When I make it clear I'm not prepared to wade, she offers to put me on her back and travel to the other side.

This is how it is with Cacioppo, a relatively new entrepreneur who has spent the majority of her adult years working for nonprofits, mostly with outdoor education programs for kids. She's thoughtful, and calm, and someone who references the Girls Scouts' "to help people at all times" motto as one of her guiding principles.

And she's very much in her element here, steps away from a salty shore.

The thing that sets Cacioppo's hand-crafted salt apart from, well, any other salt is its origin. More so than most food products crafted locally, this particular product literally can't be made anywhere else. It comes directly from the waters that surround us — Cacioppo harvests in this area and also regionally, from places like St. Augustine and Vero Beach.

Minutes into my first meeting with her, a salt tasting in the back of Strands of Sunshine on Central Avenue, I realized I have never thought about where the salt on my kitchen table actually comes from.

We know instinctively, especially if you grew up in Florida licking salty seawater off your lips during summer beach trips, that salt comes from the ocean. But the connection between that and what you sprinkle on your food isn't a strong one, even in this era of farm-to-table marketing. (According to Cacioppo, there are only a handful of small-batch salt producers in the United States.)

It didn't really hit me until we tasted some of Cacioppo's salt — the pure sea salt harvested in St. Petersburg, a red-tinged sriracha flavor, a zesty lime flavor — just how dulled the flavor of standard salt can be. The pure sea salt, which Cacioppo sprinkles on a grape tomato half for tastings, immediately made my mouth water, the zingy, briny morsels landing fiercely on my tongue, the salty twinge lingering for a while.

Cacioppo warns buyers that her salt is brinier than table salt, and often more moist. Unlike many commercial versions, the only ingredient is salt, with no added iodine, bleaching agents or anticlumping agents. I'm surprised to find it ranges noticeably in size and texture, another indication that each batch is just a little bit different from all the others.

• • •

Cacioppo doesn't remember the very first time she harvested salt, or even what drove her to this particular habit. She started seriously doing it about a year ago, after a couple years of harvesting as a hobby. She started working with local restaurants like Rooster and the Till, sold her products to Locale Market and other local stores, and made salt her full-time job. At the end of 2016, she made a resolution to put out a new flavor each month, and now has more than 16. Currently, she's working on three new ones: onion, lavender and — get this — pinot noir.

It all comes back to the outdoors, to being able to work with her hands, to learn by doing.

"I grew up swimming outside and playing in the dirt," she said. "I wasn't a very great student but I thrived being active and being outside. For me this is like getting back to basics."

The process starts with a day at the beach, various locations that Cacioppo has put years worth of work into finding. She has learned to study tide charts and says the tides dictate when she goes out more than time or temperature. It's all about capturing the most ideal weather and water and, therefore, the most ideal salt-harvesting conditions.

"It's all about the water," she said. "I have to get it from the cleanest possible sources, because salt only has one ingredient: water."

She goes out with 5-gallon buckets, loads them up in the back of a truck ("Though you'd be surprised how many I can get into my car," she says) and takes them back to her house, where the water settles and is then filtered and boiled.

After that, it's all about drying the water until only salt is left. A 5-gallon bucket yields about a pound of salt.

There were a lot of challenges in the beginning, Cacioppo said, a lot of ruined pots because she didn't realize just how corrosive saltwater is. She tried various techniques for drying the salt, from solar evaporation to putting it in an oven. She learned about salinity content and the history of salt. (Our first conversation includes facts about Gandhi's Salt March.) She teamed with a material scientist, who helped her identify which of the 85 minerals in sea salt she wanted to isolate and remove because they made the salt taste bitter.

• • •

Back on the beach, we see a couple of dolphins poke their fins out of the water. Cacioppo watches them intently. And even though it's 95 degrees outside, I think back to something she told me the first time we ever talked.

"I see dolphins a lot when I go out. A bird pooped on me once. Sometimes I'll haul a bucket and pull a muscle in my neck. But I never take for granted that this is my office for the day."

She often talks about how what she does is feeding a basic need: to nourish, and in more ways that one.

When she first started working with chefs, Cacioppo would share an anecdote to help them understand what sets her product apart. She describes it for me as we're standing near the shore.

"You can serve a local fish with some of my salt, and it's a really interesting relationship," she says, trying to come up with something similar to the word "symbiotic" to describe it. "It's like that but not quite. It's just, the fish was essentially swimming in this. For some reason, realizing that really touched me."

Contact Michelle Stark at mstark@tampabay.com. Follow @mstark17.

           
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