ESSEX lacks any coal or gold deposits, but it is rich in one mineral export. Our county’s salt is a world best cellar.

The white stuff from the River Blackwater has a fair claim to be the most ubiquitous British food product around the world. Eat your heart out Bovril and gingernuts. Even French chefs swallow their Gallic pride and use Essex salt – it’s that good.

At least until very recently (see side panel), the sea salt success story has been wholly associated with one town and one family business.

Founded in 1892, the Maldon Salt company is now run by the fourth generation of the Osborne family.

Salt is universal but the type of salt produced in Maldon is unique. The world’s appetite for it keeps on growing. It is now sold in 43 countries around the world, and the tally keeps rising. “We’re developing fast in the Far East right now,” says company chairman Clive Osborne.

An average 30,000 packets of the distinctive, flaky salt come off the conveyor belt at the company’s base in Maldon every day. Destinations include America, Australia and – since the company has a Royal Warrant – Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle.

In areas such as marketing and distribution, Maldon Sea Salt is a switched-on modern company. Yet its production methods are unchanged from those first used to produce salt on the Essex marshes, 4,000 years ago. Then as now, it is a land-based operation, farming the sea.

At “The Downs”, the Victorian-era plant on Maldon wharf, water is pumped in from the Blackwater estuary.

It is then heated in distinctive, purpose-built open tanks. Here, as everywhere, there is a powerful sense of continuity. As a young man, Clive fed the coal furnaces alongside his dad. The cast iron furnace portholes are preserved in the building, although natural gas now provides the power.

Over the course of a 24-hour cycle, the water boils away and the salt crystallises. It is then transferred to a mechanical drier – one of the innovations introduced by fourth generation managing director Steve Osborne.

And then, there it is, the magical mineral endorsed, sometimes effusively, by some of the greatest chefs on earth.

What is it about this seemingly simple product that makes it so special? Clive sums the answer up in one word, “purity”.

Ordinary table salt, mostly dug from the Cheshire salt mines, contains chemical additives that make it easier to pour. The payback, however, is an absence of character and an unlovely aftertaste.

Industrial salt has also been stripped of mineral nutrients. By contrast, Maldon salt tastes of the sea, contains around 80 nutritious elements, and is so pleasant to the palate that it hardly needs to come with any other food attached.

There is one other key ingredient – Essex geography.

The county’s low rainfall (it is officially a semi-arid zone) gives Essex waters a high salinity. The Essex coast is a rim of salt crust. Maldon, with its shallow creeks and salt marshes, has been a hothouse of salt-making since time immemorial. In the year 1086, the Domesday Book listed 45 separate salt panners in the district. By the 1890s, however, the Maldon Salt Company was the sole survivor.

At the start of the 20th century, the company was given a massive fillip by an article in the Lancet, the famous medical journal. Following laboratory analysis, Maldon Salt was recommended as a health-giving contrast to mass-produced industrial table-salts. Harrods and Fortnum & Mason started to stock it on a regular basis, and the firm has never looked back.