Duncan and Jan Thomson have taken the most despised four-letter word in the Murray-Darling Basin and turned it into gourmet fare.
Story By Sheridan Rogers
Duncan Thomson has the Midas touch. Like the fabled king, he has turned something worthless – underground saline water near Mildura, Vic – into something worthwhile: flavourful pink gourmet salt flakes.
Just six years ago, he and his wife Jan launched the Murray River Salt label at the 2002 Fine Foods Australia exhibition and began selling their gourmet salt flakes at local farmers’ markets. Now they’re shipping all over the world to countries as diverse as the US, Canada, Japan, Switzerland, China, Dubai, Sweden and Italy where their fabulous pink flakes grace the tables of leading restaurants and gourmands.
“Since we started producing the gourmet salt flakes in late 2002, the business has grown 600-700 percent,” Duncan says. “Now we’re looking at sending container loads, not just pallets.”
The company – called SunSalt – won the prestigious Engineers Australia National Salinity Prize in 2004 for its efforts towards salinity reduction. SunSalt also won the award for Most Consistent Product at the Vogue Entertainment & Travel Produce Awards last year.
It’s an outstanding success story at a time when salt is the most despised four-letter word in the Murray-Darling Basin and one of the most serious environmental problems threatening the future of industry, agriculture and domestic water use in south-eastern Australia.
“Environmentally, it’s really positive because the government authorities divert 80,000 tonnes of salt per annum into the Mourquong Basin, which would otherwise enter the Murray River,” Duncan says. “But if the product wasn’t what people wanted, it wouldn’t have taken off.
“At first, we weren’t even sure we could produce flake salt because there was little information or expertise to draw on in Australia. When we started looking at inland salt as a product for table consumption, it was widely considered inferior to sea salt because of the degree of mineralisation. It took us about 18 months to develop the crystals the right way.”
They began by baking trays of brine on their stove at home. “I’d always had a hunch that there had to be a culinary market,” Jan says. “So we started experimenting at home and went from there with help from the CSIRO’s minerals division.”
This story excerpt is from Issue #59
Outback Magazine: June/July 2008