Viewpoints from Aussie Cuisine
AussieCuisine works towards representing the Australian gastronomic identity by also promoting passionate Aussie producers. Olsson’s is a long established, family-owned and operated specialist producer and is fast becoming the favoured salt in high-end restaurants in Australia.
Britain’s Maldon salt and France’s Fleur de Sel de Guérande have a reputation for being two of the finest salts in the world, however Olsson’s ‘fleur de sel’ salt shows that Australian produce can be just as outstanding in quality and taste. Australian chefs tend to prefer to use local produce for its superior freshness or quality, but they are also aware of their environmental impact, as the long distances food is transported from the time of its production until it reaches the consumer can have a detrimental effect on the global climate.
In cooking, salt is an essential ingredient used for curing, pickling, brining, preserving and cheese making. Salt is even used in dessert, such as salted caramel, to complement flavours. Talented chefs know that salt added at different stages of cooking enhances overall flavour of a dish. Mastering the perfect level of salt in a dish is an art, as people can have different preferences for the level of saltiness in food.
by Simon Evans
Salt is the world Alexandra Olsson inhabits now, not too far removed from her childhood longing to become a chef.
The end users of the two main salt businesses run by the Olsson family couldn’t be more different. Diners in high-end restaurants such as Peter Gilmore’s Quay in Sydney and Heston Blumenthal’s Dinner by Heston Blumenthal in Melbourne experience the full flavour of a range of gourmet sea salts. Thousands of kilometres inland in drought-ravaged paddocks, herds of sheep and cattle chomp through nutritional supplements known as salt blocks.
Alexandra Olsson is a third-generation director of Olsson Pacific, which is split into two divisions: Olsson Industries for livestock nutrition, and Pacific Salt, the sea salt unit. The former began in 1948, but Alexandra’s focus is on the nascent gourmet sea salt division – black truffle salt, red gum smoked salt and sea salt rubs – and it’s keeping her busy.
“We are literally on the jumping-off point for international expansion,” she says. “About 98 per cent of sales of the gourmet sea salt range are generated in Australia, mostly in the food service industry selling to hotels and restaurants.” But Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei and Japan are picking up.
Olsson Pacific is the oldest family-owned and operated salt company in Australia. It’s now run by Alexandra, her sister Genevieve, their father Charles and a cousin, Murray Olsson, who between them manage about 300 staff from their Sydney headquarters.
Whyalla salt pans
The company started producing salt blocks for graziers in South Australia who were caught in an extended drought that began in the late 1940s. In the late 1960s, second-generation brothers Charles (Alexandra’s father) and Malcolm Olsson took control of some salt pans near Whyalla on the Eyre Peninsula that were being discarded by mining giant BHP, and the throughput of salt blocks stepped up. The combination of extended hours of sunshine, sea water in the Spencer Gulf in South Australia and strong winds was ideal, and the business expanded steadily.
In 1988 the family opened a solar sea salt plant operation near Rockhampton in Queensland. The gourmet sea salt business launched in 2012. Decades earlier, Charles had learned traditional salt-making techniques at Les Salins du Midi in Languedoc, southern France. He spent 10 years perfecting the process of making salt flakes inside the Olsson business. The “Fleur de Sel” range, in homage to his French mentor, is so delicate it is recommended for finishing and presentation. A range of macrobiotic sea salts and black truffle salts launched in 2013, and in 2016, smoked red gum salt.
Olsson, 50, says as a teenager she wanted to be a chef. After studying hotel management in Switzerland she was on the team that opened Mt Buller Chalet Hotel in Victoria’s ski fields in the mid-1990s. She’s a decent skier, having also bounced around the slopes of Mount Bandai in Fukushima prefecture in Japan on a year-long scholarship while studying Japanese at Macquarie University in Sydney.
Olsson has worked in the family business for 20 years and in the early days relished the bluntness of rural customers as they grilled her about the benefits of the livestock products. “I cut my teeth selling salt blocks in the country,” she says. “I loved it. I always appreciated the straight-talking of the graziers.”
Pacific Salt market
That primed her for her subsequent role with Pacific Salt, travelling around the country encouraging top chefs to try the flat flakes, which are uniquely shaped in the Australian market. Being flat rather than the typical pyramid shape, they’re more crumbly, imparting extra flavour. “That’s crucial among discerning users,” Olsson says. “They’re incredibly delicate and they dissolve on your tongue. It’s all about surface area and mouth feel.” The flatness also makes them a little more fragile. “We’ve got to be so careful in how we package them.”
From start to finish, the production process is painstaking and, depending on weather, can take between eight to 18 months. A heavy brine is put into a very large stainless steel pan and then heat is applied on the top to speed up evaporation. The bottom of the steel pan is refrigerated to stop the flakes turning into crystals.
The flat flakes account for just 1 per cent of Pacific Salt revenue, but “the market for this one product is increasing as fast as we can build the flaker pans to make the salt”, says Olsson. Other restaurant clients include Icebergs Dining Room, Catalina and The Bathers’ Pavilion in Sydney, Africola in Adelaide and The European in Melbourne.
“Our customers are very loyal, although it is a competitive market.” Rivals include Murray River Salt and Tasman Sea Salt, while big offshore players such as Britain’s Maldon Salt try to elbow the locals out.
Olsson indulges her chef tendencies foraging on her parents’ Moss Vale farm for unusual ingredients and then whipping up a dish such as a truffle cheese fondue, some tasty Italian fare or a salt-cured ocean trout. “I’m not too bad on some of the traditional European dishes,” she says. “Our family have always been massive entertainers.”
Olsson says family businesses generally bring a certain forthrightness, much like that exhibited by some of the country customers buying salt licks for their sheep and cattle. There is often vigorous debate among siblings, parents and uncles about strategic moves for the company. “Robust discussion is a very diplomatic way of saying it,” she laughs.
Evans, S. (28 Jun 2017). Alexandra Olsson’s gourmet sea salt business Pacific Salt is about to expand. Financial Review. Retrieved from http://www.afr.com/brand/afr-magazine/alexandra-olssons-gourmet-sea-salt-business-set-to-expand-20170508-gw098t#ixzz4lTTSfTxH
Mariuz, D. (28 Jun 2017). Alexandra Olsson’s gourmet sea salt business Pacific Salt is about to expand. Financial Review. Retrieved from http://www.afr.com/brand/afr-magazine/alexandra-olssons-gourmet-sea-salt-business-set-to-expand-20170508-gw098t#ixzz4lTTSfTxH