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J.Q. Dickinson Salt Works

A Very Deep Past: From an Ancient Ocean to Today’s Table J.Q. Dickinson Salt Works has a fascinating history. In the minds of most, West Virginia is tied to coal mining. But coal was not the State’s first industry; salt was.

Photos credit: Lauren Stonestreet

Michael A. Gardiner

A Very Deep Past: From an Ancient Ocean to Today’s Table

J.Q. Dickinson Salt Works has a fascinating history. In the minds of most, West Virginia is tied to coal mining. But coal was not the State’s first industry; salt was.

Appalachian Mercantile is an extension of the salts. It is building a stable local economy that is not based on coal and not on heavy industry. Instead, it is based on that which is produced locally and has a lighter footprint.

Salt Ash in Fresh Cheese with Port Reduction

Salt is nearly ubiquitous.

We add it to just about every meal we eat. Just as the deer and buffalo sought it out in the Kanawha Valley near the location of today’s J.Q. Dickinson Salt Works because their bodies needed it, so too do ours.

Salt is often that final touch that brings a dish together. It can pull a dish into balance. It can bring out the natural flavors of the center-of-the plate star. But while we may add salt to most dishes it is rarely the unquestioned star in and of itself.

Here, in this dish that straddles the line between sweet and savory, main course and dessert, it is the salt that is the key. Two different J.Q. Dickinson Salt Works salts—the Heirloom Salt and the finishing touch of Ghost Pepper Salt—feature on the palate. Beyond that it is salt that makes that center-of-the-plate element (the fresh cheese) possible.

Preparation

To make the Fresh Cheese, pour the milk into a large pot, and heat the milk until it is almost boiling, about 195° Fahrenheit, stirring constantly to prevent the bottom of the pot from scorching. When the milk reaches the desired temperature, remove from the heat, and stir in the vinegar. Let stand for 10 minutes.

While the milk is standing, line a strainer with several layers of cheesecloth and set over the sink or a large pot or bowl. The milk should separate into a white solid part, and a yellowish liquid (whey). Stir the salt into the milk, then pour through the cloth-lined strainer. Let the curds continue to drain in the strainer for an hour. Reserve the whey for another purpose (such as, for example, fermentation).

After the cheese has finished draining, remove the cheese from the cheese cloth and pat into 4 perfectly round balls. Wrap in plastic and store in the refrigerator until ready to use. Refrigerated, fresh cheese will last about a week.

To make the Salt Ash, preheat the oven to broil (at least 500° Fahrenheit). While the oven is heating, line a metal baking sheet with aluminum foil (for ease of clean-up). Spread the sliced onions and leeks in a single layer on the foil and place under the broiler. Cook, turning once or twice, until the alliums are fully charred and crisp, about an hour. Remove from the oven and cool fully. Working in batches, add the alliums to a food processor or high-speed blender and pulverize the charred vegetables to a powdered ash. Weigh the ash and then combine it with an equal (by weight) amount of the J.Q. Dickinson Heirloom Salt. Pulverize the combined salt ash then store indefinitely in a tightly sealed container.

To make the Port Wine Reduction, combine all the sauce ingredients in a medium saucepan over medium heat and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat to low and continue to reduce the port to ½ cup, about 45 minutes. Strain through a fine mesh sieve; let cool to room temperature before serving.

To plate the dish, spoon enough of the Port Wine Reduction to cover the bottom of each bowl. Place a fresh cheese ball in the center of each bowl and powder the top half of each ball with the salt ash. Sprinkle a few grains of J.Q. Dickinson Ghost Pepper Salt on top of the ash and garnish with a mint leaf.