Michal Bietz Øverland
The Woman that Cooks the Sea
It started with helping her kids with a school project in the States. Now she’s going all in with salt production in Northwestern Norway.
“I absolutely love food!”
American Michal Bietz Øverland is passionate about food, its ingredients, smells and taste. That describes her since she was a little girl in Portland Oregon in the luscious Willamette Valley. The climate there is comfortable, Pinot Noir perfect, and with local ingredients in abundance. She grew up with Willamette Valley’s organic farms, ranchers, vineyards, river caught salmon, and Portland’s many farmer’s markets. In this area of the United States food culture is as rich and abundant as the areas many harvests.
“When I was little everything was fresh. I literally grew up in the middle of a vegetable garden. My parent were vegetarians, so it was automatic that I became one too, and I loved making vegetarian dishes. But even if I have well developed senses for taste and smell I never felt that I knew or understood the full potential of all the ingredients.
Michal, as a child, followed with passion Julia Child’s show The French Chef on public television. In her thirties she ran into Julia Child, then almost ninety, on the streets of Portland. Michal introduced herself and told her she had been her cooking idol since she was seven. Mrs. Child leaned towards Michal and said, “You must be a very good cook by now.”
When Michal was in her early twenties she spent a summer month with French friends, a family with a summer house in Varenge-ville-sur-Mer in Normandy. She was filled with excitement to be in a country at the heart of culinary arts, and decided vegetarianism be dammed, she would eat anything she was served. That trip became an education in tastes.
“I still remember the first lunch. I can see the dish and I can still taste it as I sit here. All the ingredients were well known to me at the time, ripe avocado, Dijon vinaigrette, flowers and salads from the garden. The food was so simple, but everything tasted different and better. That evening they served rabbit stew. It was my first meal with meat – ever! It was delicious!
The family cook, Madame Basque, came every morning with fresh vegetables, fruit and whatever else the family needed from the town markets. She made breakfast and lunch and read prepared everything for for dinner. Michal spent her time in the kitchen with Madame Basque to observe, taste and learn. She made her school French stretch as far as it could and made her summer visit into a private cooking school.
“I learned so much from being in the kitchen with Madame Basque. That is the summer I remember the best, the place and its surroundings, the language and most of all the food. This is where I truly started on my journey in tastes and the composition of tastes. My memories are mixtures of visuals, scents and tastes. I remember almost every dish I have ever eaten.
Michal’s interest for food and tastes has grown as she matured from a child, to a twenty-something and into a woman. When she met her husband Arve, a Norwegian, travels increased both through his business and privately, expanding food and taste experiences to new continents. Ecological and sustainable food is an important part of their family’s life and Michal is sure she can taste and feel the difference between industrially farmed and ecological and sustainably farmed foods.
Michal first made salt as part of a school project for her sons while still living in The States. The assignment was the Lewis and Clark expedition. The 1804-06 expedition seeking an accessible route for wagon trains from the East to the West Coast. At the end of the trail they “discovered” the later state of Oregon. What do you do when you finally arrive at the Pacific Ocean? You boil it so you have salt for your food on the long journey back.
Historically, salt has always had great economic and social importance. Issues with mass production combined with high consumption increased the value of salt. In the 1400s property value in the Nordic countries was measured in salt. The Norwegian word saler and the English word salary have their root in that workers were often paid in salt. Salt served many uses including conservation of foods. Besides drying, salt was the only way to remove water from fish and meat to make it last and prevent rot. Still, there has not been large-scale production of finishing or table salts in Norway for a long time. It was cheaper to buy it from the countries around the Mediterranean and bring it back on the ships that dropped off Norwegian dried and salted cod.
After her first sea salt experimentation, helping her boys with their school project, Michal could not get salt off her mind. She wanted to learn more. One summer a few years ago she took the steps from studying theory to testing them out in real life. They were on one of many family vacations spent with Arve’s parents on the island of Gossen — a fifteen-minute drive northwest from the small town of Molde followed by a fifteen-minute ferry ride. As Arve tells it, they took the boat out, as they often do, and went fishing out past Bjørnsund where the ocean opens to Hustadvika and the open sea. Beautiful salt seawater as far as the eye can see.
“Michal brought with her several ten liter containers and filled them with sea water from different spots from around the island. Using the GPS on her phone she wrote the exact source of the water on each container.”
That’s how it all started. Just as a winemaker seeks the perfect soil for growing grapes, Michal sought to find the perfect organic mineral content in the seawater to create a unique and flavorful salt. She thought that the cold, clear Norwegian Sea is the cleanest and best seawater in Europe. Back on shore she started making salt from her water samples using an old crab cooker in her in-laws’ boathouse. Container after container was cooked on various temperatures and lengths and careful and detailed notes were taken along the way and many cucumbers from her mother-in-law’s greenhouse were sliced up for tastings.
“It’s a great way to taste salt. If you drop the crystals on the top of your tongue it shocks your taste buds. Cucumber or tomato slices are the perfect vehicle to taste salt as it allows the salt crystals to spread to the sides of the tongue. In addition, cucumbers have a clean, clear taste that does not interfere with the natural flavors of the salt.”
In 2011 Michal, Arve and their sons Max and Finn moved from Portland, Oregon to Oslo. Naturally their visits to Gossen increased in frequency, and Michal started to entertain the idea to increase the scale her salt production. She continued to experiment, study historical processes, and refine her own process to zero in on what she considers the best finishing salt. She sent samples around the world to people in her food network including her good friend Mark Bitterman. He is one of the world’s foremost experts on salt for cooking and the author of the award-winning book Salted. His positive review of her salt along with the enthusiasm expressed by top Nordic and American chefs gave her the confidence she needed. Michal’s husband, Arve, was already on board, and together they sold their business idea to his younger brother, Sverre. North Sea Salt Works was officially founded January 2014.
Now the trio is all on board with their new venture. They’ve left their city jobs behind and settled on the island of Gossen where they work full time in the salt business.
“Here we have everything we need. The school and the extra curricular activities for our boys are very good and the community has really made us feel welcome.
Businesses on the island are often connected to the sea and its harvests. Vikenco, the world’s largest exporter of ecologically farmed salmon, is located on Rindarøy that is connected to Gossen by a breakwater bridge built with large rocks in the years following World War Two. Their operations face Saltsteinsleia, a passage for ships coming in from the open ocean. Here they slaughter, fillet and export 400 000 metric tons of salmon every year and the owners of this company have helped make Michal’s dream of a salt factory a reality.
“My brother-in-law, Sverre, took a bag of our salt and knocked on their door. After that it all started moving very fast.”
“They believed in our idea, and us as a team. Then we contacted Innovation Norway and got the same response,” Sverre Orm Øverland tells us. He is dripping wet from a dive down to the bottom of Saltsteinsleia, a kilometer out from the dock of the salt factory. We have headed out to sea with Jonny Småge and Per Olav Mevold from Vikenco in their forty-two foot boat Roms. The partners are often out diving and fishing, and after the Øverlands moved to the island, they often come along. Sverre, wearing his dry-suit, is a champion swimmer with a free-dive record of 63 meters without air. Sverre and Jonny have been down at a depth of 25 to 30 meters picking scallops for the evening’s family dinner in the boathouse.
“Eating your fill of fresh scallops is a fantastic experience and not something you can do when you have to pay fifty kroner, six to seven Euros, a piece in the store.” Today’s catch was eighty plus — big ones.
On the boat, our conversation drifts from ecological salmon to the famous Ona Lighthouse that we see on the horizon, and to how ideal these waters are as raw material for salt production. With Sverre’s love of the water and the sea it feels perfectly natural that he is now going to make a living by selling salt derived from it.
“The guys at Vikenco let us use an old empty factory building on Karlsholmen on the other side of the breakwater leading to Rindarøy. It was unreal to get factory space and offices so fast and we wasted no time getting things up and running”.
Due to all the experimentation and research they had done prior to this, North Sea Salt Works was in business from the day the three moved into the factory. Now they are making deals to sell salt to Norwegians and the world. Equipment allowing for expansion of production, up towards half a ton a day, has been ordered from an Austrian company and orders for their salt are coming in.
Since that first trip of collecting sea water out past Bjørnsund in the Easter of 2013 Michal has filled tons of sample containers and after endless testing they have locked in on the process they use to produce Havsnø, a beautiful flake salt, and the first product from North Sea Salt Works. They pump in the waters from Saltsteinsleia and freeze it in the sub-zero warehouse at Vikenco. The fresher water freezes first and the ice that it forms is discarded, leaving a stronger salt content in the brine that remains. The Vikings knew this and would collect water from under the iced-over fjords in the winter months for their salt making.
“Sea water holds a salinity of maximum 3,5%, while the brine out of the freezer holds about 12%. I’ve tried and tested many methods, but when I cook this brine long and slow at low temperatures I get exactly the finishing salt I’m looking for. Large beautiful crystals that are not too hard or soft.”
Orders from restaurants are coming in. Several of the most noted chefs in the Nordic countries are already using the salt.
“I’ve had some great experiences with chefs when they taste the salt. They are so generous and creative. You always leave with new ideas.”
There are a lot of table and finishing salts in the stores. Arve tells us that the fine salts category is a small but growing market globally. In Norway the category grew a little over 10% last year while conventional or inexpensive salts actually went down slightly.
“Norwegians are probably watching their salt intake and want to make sure that the salt they actually consume is properly made and tastes good. We wish that consumers will pick our salt off the shelves when available around the holidays — not just because it is local and Norwegian but because they prefer the taste and consistency.”
“It is important to us that we hold on to our authenticity and our high demand for quality and sustainability as we expand our production volume, so as many as possible can get to experience the great taste of the cold, clean Norwegian Sea.
The sun is going down over the island. It is evening in the boathouse where it all started. A big family dinner with friends, as they often have on the weekends, is coming to an end. The catch of the day has been enjoyed, the wine is on the table and the atmosphere warm and welcoming. Michal has some time to reflect on all that has happened over the past year and a half.
“So much has happened in such a short time, but it still feels a long time ago since that winter day in 2013 when the man at NAV, the Norwegian unemployment office, looked at me and said: Nobody wants you Michal. You don’t speak Norwegian.”