By Yvette Tan
Salt is an important part of the dinner table. This condiment has become so common; it tends to get taken for granted. But what many people forget is that behind each salt grain lies not only a livelihood, but a culture.
xroads (pronounced ‘crossroads’) Philippine Sea Salts, an American company that sells artisanal sea salt from Pangasinan and Bohol, was founded by Lennie Buenaflor DiCarlo, a second generation Filipino American, and her husband Anthony. Named after the Philippines’ geographic location as a crossroads for many countries and cultures, the 15 year-old business came about because DiCarlo herself was at a crossroads. Leaving a career in finance, the San Diego State University Economics graduate took up culinary studies at Le Cordon Bleu at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco.
Accidental business idea
The idea for roads came from a visit to her mother’s hometown of Alaminos, Pangasinan, longtime home to many salt farms. She brought back Pangasinan sea salt as pasalubong for her chef friends. “They started calling me, telling me ‘this is a great salt, I want more,’ and that’s when that light bulb moment came up and I said wow!, there is something here,” she says.
Research on the Philippine salt industry showed her that what was once a booming industry was now in severe decline. “It was 100% local that is Philippine and now… a majority of salt in the Philippines is imported from China.”
She realized that selling artisan sea salt from the Philippines in the US could not only help improve a dying industry, it could help uplift local salt farmers and preserve the local salt making culture as well. It was a very small plan-it was just one of those ‘Let’s see what I can do to [help the locals] by hiring them, paying them real wages’ plans,” she says.
She spent a lot of time researching about Philippine sea salt and touring salt farms in the country. Her research put her in touch with the Philippine Department of Trade in San Francisco, who helped facilitate turning her small project into a full-fledged business.
She started by bringing back a pallet of salt (about a thousand pounds) a trip. She specifically targeted a niche market because it would be difficult to complete with the big, nationally-known salt brands. Besides, the clientele she was trying to reach was very different; she wanted customers who were after taste and quality, and also cared about the culture behind the product. “We [have a] very niche market which is the high-end restaurants, the chefs that care about products like this, and into the markets where people care about good quality ingredients.”
Venturing into a niche market meant that growth would be slow, and that consumers would need to be educated on the product and what it stands for. “It’s very hard to compete,” DiCarlo admits. “In any industry with large companies that have been there for a long time, you have to find your market, your niche, your messaging so that you can break into the market.”
But DiCarlo’s efforts have paid off. xroads Philippine Sea Salts can be found in high end steakhouses, a few restaurants at the Wynn resort in Las Vegas, and is a main ingredient in a truffled salt product that’s sold in Whole Foods, a specialty grocery store chain. It is also used by chefs like James Beard Award-winner Tom Cunana of Filipino restaurant Bad Saint in Washington DC, among others. “It took a while for us to get some traction into being known [but] we’re now into best of the best restaurants, being used by the best of the best chefs,” she says. “It has an excellent reputation, it can compete alongside the French sea salts.”
xroads sells two kinds of salt: Ilocano Asia from Pangasinan, and Asia Tibuok from Palawan.
Ilocano Asin was the salt that DiCarlo first brought back to the US as pasalubong, the type that spurred her to launch her business. “A lot of beach communities in the Philippines that have salt farming as their industry,” she says. “[It’s] pretty much the same it’s quite similar to the ones in Europe, where seawater or brackish water is collected in ponds, and the ponds evaporate so the salinity level increases as the water traverses from pond to pond and depending on the size of the farm [and] the number of ponds that they have, that water is then funneled into salt beds that are line with clay tile.
The clay tile is covered with two to three inches of saltwater in the morning, which turns into salt by the afternoon. The salt season in the Philippines is at its height during the summer, when salinity is high. It starts around December and ends around May or June. “The granular level varies depending on the heat, humidity, and salinity level of the sea water… You can get… a larger rock salt to a very fine powdery salt without having to, what you call in the Philippines, ‘cook’ the salt….”
‘Cooking’ the salt is when saltwater is placed in a vessel and is heated very slowly, mimicking solar evaporation. The process also purifies the salt, so it’s what is commonly used in areas where the seawater isn’t very clean, or in areas that are a ways from the original water source, which is the best source of salt.
DiCarlo purchases the rock salt at the peak of the season. “It’s all natural evaporation… it still uses the same [premise] of small farming. It’s not the huge mass scales where they’re using like you see in the pictures [with] tractors shoveling salt. It’s still done by hand,” she says. “ I call [it] ‘Ilocano Asin’ because my mom is Ilocano and the salt is from Pangasinan.”
DiCarlo is especially excited about Asin Tibuok, a traditionally-made salt from Bohol that is now going extinct as it is only made by one family in the entire province. She found out about the salt through Clara Lapus, president of the Mama Sita Foundation, who had once tried to introduce the salt to the public. “I immediately fell in love with the story,” DiCarlo says. “I knew there was a story behind the salt that could be sold and told to the US market.”
She immediately delved into research. “I got to know the family, why they are doing it, who they were, why is it that there’s one family left making this salt,” she says.
She stayed with the Manongas family, who makes the salt, for two weeks, learning about the history of the salt and how it was made. “They’re in Bohol, in the town of Albuquerque… They have been working hard for many years now trying to revive this industry and making it the way it’s been made for generations,” DiCarlo says. “There is historical significance in how they make it and what they’re doing. There is cultural significance and there’s ethnographic significance… The Manongas family has been working with me in trying to promote the product.”
Described as a “dinosaur egg,” because of its shape, the Asin Tibuok is a roundish, palm-sized packed salt that is grated over a dish to season it. Because of its rarity and cultural impact, it has been entered in the Ark of Taste, an international catalogue of endangered heritage food maintained by Slow Food International, an organization dedicated to the preservation of traditional foodways. “It’s a dying industry, and we need to recognize this,” DiCarlo says. “If we don’t support this kind of product, whether it be [on the] local… or on an international level, we’ll lose them. They’ll forever be gone.”
“It takes three-four months to make the salt and it’s a whole process,” DiCarlo says. “Their kids are college-educated and now they’re either gone abroad or they’re working in cities. That story is the same all over the world where you have families that have these businesses that are very laborious, but no one wants to do it anymore because the kids would rather do something easier to make more money than what they can do by breaking their backs making salt. That unfortunately, I think is totally unappreciated.”
Helping other industries
While DiCarlo’s main clients are institutions like hotels, restaurants, and food producers, she does produce 5 oz. salt packets packed in nipa or abaca boxes tied with abaca twine that’s perfect for gifts and giveaways. Everything is done by hand, so it’s not something she pushes, though she does still offer it on the xroads website.
“I have a suki in Manila that I buy from,” DiCarlo explains. “I was [also] introduced by the Department of Trade and Industry to an organization called CROWN—Cabilao, Romblon Weaver’s Network.”
CROWN works with communities from Cabilao island off Bohol. “The majority of the industry there is weaving. The [women] make baskets and bags to sell to the local resorts and local markets, and the men are the fishermen,” DiCarlo says. “ So, I purchase a lot of my baskets through them through the DTI.”
DiCarlo is proud to be able to include Philippine products in even the little touches. “That’s what it’s all about. Working with these involved communities to bring their products somewhere else where they wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity,” she says.
She says that she’s a small player in the market, which is perfectly fine by her for now. “ I am not bringing in containers and containers. I’m slowly creeping into the market and that way, it’s more sustainable for me, it’s more sustainable for the people that I work with in the Philippines,” she says. “I want to do something that’s long-lasting, something that is sustainable and of course, something that is driven by purpose, and my purpose is sell things where people matter, the environment matters, and the economic issues matter.”
Exporting Philippine sea salt
While she has good products and a ready market, exporting Philippine sea salt is another matter altogether. Because of the Republic Act No. 8172, or the Act for Salt Iodization Nationwide (ASIN) Law passed in 1995 under the recommendation of the World Health Organization (WHO) to help curb iodine deficiency in the Philippine population, selling non-iodized salt became illegal. Many salt farmers lost their livelihood almost overnight, and over the years, what was once a 100% self-sufficient industry dwindled down to 20% self-sufficiency, with most of the Philippines’ current salt being imported from China. So selling Philippine sea salt, whether locally or for export, can be tricky.
Aside from working straight with the family who makes Asin Tibuok in Bohol, DiCarlo works with a salt farmer in Pangasinan who has an export license. “Here’s a thing about exporting: I can’t just export using small farmers. In the beginning, I did because I brought in such a small amount. The farmers that I work with, one of them is my uncle who has since passed away. Another one is a local farmer in my mom’s barangay. But as my orders of salt have gotten larger, I’ve had to go with a farmer that has an export license that’s large enough for me to fill a container,” she says.
The salt is bought at the price given by the farmers. “When I buy the salt, we don’t haggle because I know it’s inexpensive [for me] and I know for them, it’s such a large amount. For me to bring it here yes, the cost is high but I am able to sell it where I can still make some profit on it,” she says. “So yes, I am for profit business. However, I am also a business with a purpose, and when my business affects the people that I work with… by not creating more urban sprawl, I am also able to have a continuing business and that, I’m appreciative of.”
To ensure quality, the salt is tested in a trusted food laboratory in the US. “I submitted all my samples before I even put it out to the market so that I can confirm to my customers that the quality of product that I’m providing them is what I’m saying it is,” she says.
DiCarlo is one of a small but growing number of people who are advocating for an exemption in the ASIN Law to legalize the sale of non-iodized sea salt, on one hand because consumers should be able to choose for themselves what salt to buy, and second, to help salt farmers gain back their source of livelihood.
“We will have an industry where we’re importing a hundred percent of the salt. And [phasing] out all of these beautiful farm lands also provides an environmental impact,” DiCarlo says. “If we lose these salt marshes, the brackish water, and the areas where salt is made… [if] we lose that farming community, it affects us environmentally and it affects us economically because of the loss of jobs..”
She adds, “I think there is a way for us to help salt farmers succeed, and one is to not change the ASIN Law because Iodized salt is still important for communities who don’t obtain iodized products… Yes, it is still important. However, give [people] an option. People should always have the choice to decide what they want to eat, what they want to put in their bodies.”
Finding the Philippines in a grain of salt
By growing her business slowly, DiCarlo has allowed herself, her clients, and the farmers she works with to adapt to the intricacies of supply and demand. Starting with one pallet (about 1,500 pounds, or 50 25 kilo packs) every other year, she has, just last year, managed to import a 120 foot shipping container containing half Asin Tibuok and half Asin Ilocano, about eight tons total. “ That’s a lot of salt for me!” she exclaims.
Future plans include incorporating the company and expanding to other Filipino products like siling labuyo. Good timing too, since Filipino cuisine has recently taken off internationally. “I think that the opportunities for Philippine sea salt can reach a lot more people. There are so many different markets all over the world,” DiCarlo says.
She adds that though she markets her salts as premium products, she hopes for the day when they become a little bit more ubiquitous. “If we’re able to export more and the pricing to come down to reach more peoples and that’s a great opportunity right there. It can serve the Filipinos who are abroad, not just in the US but in other countries so that they can have a little piece of home,” she says. “I always hear it, when Filipinos tasted it, ‘This is what my mom uses, I’m gonna buy this little gift for my mom.’ Wouldn’t it be great if they don’t have to consider it as a little gift for their mom? That it becomes a normal staple in the kitchens?”
Meanwhile, DiCarlo will continue to provide Philippine sea salts to people who know how to appreciate them. “My model is reach the best of the bests, the chefs that have louder voice that can tell the story of the salt and it will trickle on down to the consumer to the people that say ‘Hey, this chef is using this and I know this chef is good and cares about the ingredients so it must be good.’ That’s a very simplistic way of looking at it,” she says. “The people have the voice in telling the story of our salts are at the top of the pyramid so I can reach more people. Because I’m small, I have to find people with larger voices.”
She also says that working closely with Philippine farmers has given her a newfound sense of her ancestral land. “It has changed me in a way that I have never known what would happen growing up here in the US. I always thought of myself as an American or an American-Filipino. Now, I consider myself a Filipino-American—Filipino first,” she says. “I have gained so much pride in working with the Filipino community—the farmers, the citizens, the people who really care about the product that they’re trying to sell… I’m proud to be able to showcase these products here.”
As much as being able to make a profit, she hopes that xroads Philippine Sea Salts introduces the world to two more kinds of artisanal; salts, ones whose production not only provides a livelihood to farmers, but keeps a culture alive as well.
“I hope that it creates a little bit more pride, that just such a tiny [product] can make such a great impact on the lives of the people that make it, on the lives of the people that purchase it, and on the environment where it comes from,” DiCarlo says. “There’s a larger story than just a grain of salt.” (Photos courtesy of Lennie DiCarlo)
This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s March 2020 issue.