The Saltpans of Xwejni

October 31, 2019

The philosopher Pythagoras once wrote: ‘Salt is born of the purest parents: the sun and the sea.’  Salt is a natural life sustaining mineral and one of our oldest forms of food seasonings and preservatives.  But did you know in ancient times salt was so highly valued, it was used as currency and its production legally restricted?

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The Saltpans in Gozo’s northerly coast just up from Marsalforn are a transfixing landmark and of vital importance, upholding an ancient trade and skill, whilst harvesting one of Gozo’s important natural raw materials – Salt.  

The Cini family’s ancestors have worked the Xwejni Salt Pans since the 1860s. Josephine Xuereb is a 5th generation salt-farmer continuing the family tradition of her mother Rosa’s family.  Her family are synonymous with salt.  In Gozo, the process of making artisan salt through evaporation goes back to Phoenician and Roman times.  During the British occupation of Gozo salt-harvesting was revived when the Government offered concessions for local people to work them and share-own them.

Josephine says: “My father Manuel is known all over the world as ‘Leli Tal-Melh’ which means Manuel The Salt Man.  He’s been making salt since 1969, when he married my mother Rosa and they revived her family’s business.  Salt harvesting then was dying out because it is physically very hard, back-breaking work.   But after my mother met my father, she taught him the trade – they fell in love, they fell in love with the salt pans and the rest is history.  Today, 50 years later they are both still harvesting salt.  The salt preserved their love and preserved the local trade as well.”

Xwejni’s Salt Pans chequerboard pattern and shimmering mirrored reflective pools are always a dynamic sight to behold.  Spanning several kilometres across Gozo’s northern coast.  Today they are divided between 3 salt farmers.  The intricate formation of shallow square pools and larger feeder pools, which Josephine compares to delicate ‘lacework’ use 3 raw natural ingredients: the sun, sea and wind to create this essential mineral for life.

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Using sea-water evaporation to produce sea-salt has changed little over the centuries.   Sea water is pumped from the sea into large feeding pools, there, the salt-water becomes highly concentrated and is then passed into the smaller boxes to the shallower pools.  So, good sea water and good wind, the rock being warmed by the sun and the sun then evaporating the seawater is essentially how this natural sea-salt is created.

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Josephine says: “When I water the pan, after 2 or 3 days the water starts crystallizing, as nature begins weaving the salt.  On Day 8, I will say it is time to pick my salt.  The only tools we use are the brushes for sweeping the salt, the bucket, the spade and the motor-pump.  Sweeping, lifting and carrying the salt is exhausting work, but we respect how nature creates the salt.”

The salt-harvesting season in Gozo starts in April, when salt is collected twice weekly until August.   Because of the ferocity of the Mediterranean summer sun, their working day starts before daylight at 04:00 am as they begin brushing salt crystals from the pans and gathering this into small piles, carrying salt in buckets to create one large salt mountain.  This large mountain of salt is then bagged up into packets to be sold on and the pans are refilled with salt-water.  Their working day finishes at 8.00 pm in the evening, with a break during the day to avoid the fierce midday sun.

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With over 50 years of salt-harvesting behind him, Manuel’s passion and dedication for the craft of salt harvesting has earnt him fame and TV appearances worldwide.   Today, he enjoys chatting to visitors in his small shop alongside the saltpans.  He says: “It’s a different way of life now.  We never used to have pumps for filling up the sea-water, when I started everything was done by hand.   We’d fill the pans by carrying buckets of sea water.  Our customers then didn’t have fridges at home and so salt was used to preserve meats and cheeses.  We’d harvest the salt and sell it directly to people from our pans.  They’d arrive by donkey and cart and buy 100 kilo or two hundred kilos to use throughout the year. “

He continues: “Nowadays, we sell our salt directly to local groceries.  But we always keep some of our artisan salt here for our visitors to taste and to buy.”

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For Gozo islanders and visitors alike, it’s a luxury to witness artisan sea salt being made and to see the farming process happen right in front of your eyes.  In a good year, the family will produce up to 18 to 20 tons of salt, in a bad year 8 or 9 tons.  

Although the harvesting process seems simple, there’s many unpredictable factors that can ruin the salt harvest, such as  high westerly winds, humidity, storms or rain – or people stepping onto the pans and contaminating the salt crystals.

If you visit Xwejni Salt Pans along the coast from Marsalforn say hello to Manuel, Josephine and Rosa who enjoy chatting to visitors.  If not out working on their Saltpans, they can be found in their shop above – look out for their blue door.  

Please respect the signs and avoid walking directly onto the salt-pans when taking photographs.

With thanks to:   Manuel and Rosa Cini, Josephine Xuereb.