If you want one day to visit Malta, do not miss a walk in the early morning along the salt pans on the island of Gozo, to watch the salt being collected and enjoy the unique and captivating landscape of mounds of white salt shimmering under the sun.
The northern coast of Gozo is characterized by a chequerboard of rock-cut saltpans, named the Xwejni Salt Pans, protruding out into the sea. Salt pans have existed in this region since the Phoenician and Roman times, and the tradition actually continues in use today.
Many factors in the area are perfect for salt harvesting, such as the good quality of the sea water, the climate, and the position of salt pans and the rocks. The salt tradition, in these salt pans, has been passed down within certain families for the past 350 years.
The basic salt production process, work which is mainly done by hand, is quite simple and demands lots of passion but also physical strength. Despite the impact of many years of sun, unbearably hot temperatures, and physical labor on their skin, you can see always the true joy in the eyes of salt workers when they go every day to their Salina.
During early spring, salt workers carry out the maintenance of the pans. The sides break up because of erosion and must be repaired with pebbles and cement.
In summer, between May and September, salt workers keep the crystallization basins, which are tidily embossed squares at the shoreline and lined with the pans, filled with the water of the Mediterranean Sea.
Using wooden industrial brooms, salt workers methodically scrape up the salt crystals to ensure that the water evaporates evenly. The salt pans are never allowed to dry up completely, for otherwise the salt will stick to the bottom of the pan and become extremely difficult to harvest. After seven days of concentration and evaporation by wind and sun during the hot summer months, they gather salt in large mounds and leave it to drain.
After draining it, they put the salt into buckets by means of a shovel and transport it on their shoulders using a wooden frame known as a ‘’yoke’’, to the caves that have been carved into the coastal rock, to be stored and processed.
The Gonzo natural sea salt is perfect for cooking as it dissolves quickly and contains a lot of sea minerals, such as iodine and magnesium. It is especially well suited to preserving sun dried tomatoes and capers, as well as sheep cheese.
In spite of being a simple and fascinating activity, salt harvesting is also long and laborious. It’s necessary to find other methods to improve the harvesting process and to alleviate the exhaustion of salt workers, but this must be done without affecting the traditional process that has passed through generations and been preserved over several centuries.
Josephine Xuereb, whose family, the Cini family of Zebbug, have spent several decades extracting salt from the Xwejni salt pans, fears that this precious tradition will gradually disappear. She says, “I hope the scene I see when harvesting the salt will never end, and the place will stay as it is. We do our best to preserve what we have. This is our heritage and I feel at it needs to be cared for and preserved as well as cultivated.”
Visit the Facebook page of Xwejni Salt Pans Leli tal-Melh.
Watch the Tim Lewis’s documentary: Tales from the Island