It’s high tide at sunset. On a beach near Orient, splashes of orange, pink and red color the calm water like watercolor on a canvas. The only sound is the soft slushes of the evening waves hitting the beach stones. Soon, that is interrupted by the footstep crunches of Dennis Borowsky. Dark waders cover his average frame while a baseball cap and sporty sunglasses protect his face from the glare of the setting sun. In each hand, he has a white five-gallon bucket that he takes with him as he glides into the water. About 20 feet off the shore, Borowsky fills each bucket and brings it back to shore.
To the confused onlooker, it might seem as if he is collecting water for samples or scientific research, or perhaps doing some very fruitless form of fishing. But Borowsky is actually harvesting this water to make sea salt. Over the last two years, he has apprenticed under Scott Bollman of North Fork Sea Salt, learning the tricks of the trade.
The process of making, or harvesting, sea salt sounds simple when broken down to its most basic parts — collect salt water, boil it down and now you have sea salt. But as Bollman learned when he started the company in 2013, it’s a lot of trial and error.
After coming across a video of a man in France making sea salt from saltwater in his kitchen, Bollman thought he would try it for himself. “The initial try was just me getting water and putting [the water] in a shallow pan and putting it in my oven just to see what the salinity was like,” he said. It took months of logging which beaches, tides, seasons and weather gave the best sea salt before Bollman created a formula and technique, one he keeps under lock and key.
North Fork Sea Salt might not exist today if it weren’t for the lucky meeting of the two men while fishing one night.
About five years ago, Bollman slowed down his sea salt business when he completely took over Bruce & Son, his father’s restaurant in Greenport. Around that same time, Borowsky was making the move out to the North Fork from Queens. After working as a radio DJ, he wanted to live in a place where he could more easily do the things he loved — surfing and fishing. He started researching places, people and companies in the area that aligned with those hobbies.
“I came across his salt and I lost my mind,” Borowsky said. “It was all I was talking about for like two years. It was everything that I loved — sharing food and harvesting from the sea. It ties it all together.”
Once out here, Borowsky started making friends with other local fishermen as he discovered the best North Fork surfcasting spots. One night, a mutual friend introduced him to Bollman, and Borowsky asked him what he did.
“I took over my dad’s restaurant, and it’s going really great, but it kind of sucks, because I can’t do my passion project,” Bollman told him.
Borowsky asked what that was, and Bollman told him he made sea salt. “I almost fell over,” Borowsky recalled. “I was like, ‘That’s you!’ ”
After more chatting they also found out they used to live on the same block in Astoria. On another late night fishing after becoming friends, Borowsky posed a question. “I know you haven’t really been doing the salt, but I can’t stop thinking about it,” he told Bollman. “Would you be willing to teach me?” Borowsky was so fascinated he told his friend he’d be willing to do it for free. He only wanted to learn.
That was two years ago, and now, Borowsky is the owner, doing most of the harvesting himself in between his day jobs in the Raphael tasting room and propagating plants at Trimble’s Nursery. Bollman jokingly calls himself a silent partner.
“I remember the first time I did a successful cook on my own,” Borowsky said, describing how he evaporated saltwater into salt for the first time. “It was the middle of the night and I was so excited — screaming and jumping up and down because I literally couldn’t believe what I was looking at.” In the pot, he saw perfectly geometric pyramids of salt, all identical.
Exactly the steps Borowsky took to get those salt crystals are a closely held secret between the duo. But in general, he said, “it’s a process of cooking on a very, very low heat. It could be 24 hours before you start to see the initial rise, what they call the fleur de sel, when the first crystals rise to the surface.” Once the salt crystals start to attach to one another and get some weight, they fall gently to the bottom of the pan. The salt is then slowly and gently pulled to one side, and it goes through a drying process. Each five-gallon bucket of seawater will produce about a pound of salt, and Borowsky collects about 20 buckets once a week.
The process is still more complicated than “water plus fire equals salt.” It’s full of nuances and techniques that can only be picked up through years of practice. “If you were to get a bucket of water, go home right now and cook it on your stovetop, you’re gonna probably get salt,” Bollman said. “But you’re probably gonna get a very silty, mushy, brown, burned salt.” This in contrast to what is in a bottle of North Fork Sea Salt — stark white, crunchy crystals of tiny geometric shapes.
Some of that comes back to the cooking process, but the state of
the water also has a lot to do with it. “You have all these bodies of water funneling into this one area,” Borowsky said, pointing out to where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Long Island Sound. “It’s a complete rush of all these bodies of water that are moving up here.” On top of that, the pair only harvests the water at high tide when there hasn’t been a heavy rain for a few days. “It’s the freshest, cleanest water, and the salinity is better,” he said.
For Bollman and Borowsky, the finished product is the flavor of the North Fork. “Growing up out here, you become a steward of your environment,” Bollman said. “And I think all salts that come from different locations have different flavors.”
The pair got an email the other day from someone living in Brooklyn who grew up on the North Fork. “He wrote that every time he uses our salt,” Borowsky said, “it actually brings him back to being a child.”