Following the rhythm of nature,
in Gozo there’s a special place where magic has been happening for thousands of years. Along from Qbajjar Bay west of Marsalforn is a place where the elements all come together; sun, salt, sea and stone. The north coast of Gozo is characterised by chequerboard shaped salt pans, hewn out of rock with sparkling white salt piled up on the side, ready to be collected.
Over 1,200 years,the Mediterranean was controlled by the Phoenicians, these were mighty sea-faring people. Traces of this civilisation can be found all over Malta, but nowhere as scenic and beautifull as at Xwejni on the island of Gozo. Back in the old days, these salt pans were formed by Phoenicians, renovated by Romans, and propagated by Gozitans. Still in use today, they are the oldest working salt pans producing sea-salt for public use.
Being passed down through the family lines, the salt pans are still worked and maintained to this day. Albeit the difficult and changing climate makes it harder to gather enough salt over the summer months. The ever changing pattern of the sea can destroy up to a months work. If the waves rise over the salt pans and flood out the area, the salt brine is lost to the elements and takes three weeks to restore.
Donkeys and carts:
The salt farming begins end of June, early July in Xwejni, when the temperatures begin to soar. Sea-Salt is sold in small souvenir bags to tourists and passers-by directly at the farming site. Back in the 1960’s, the locals used to arrive with their donkeys and carts to buy large quantities of sea salt. Sea salt was a precious and highly coveted mineral, often used as paying wages to soldiers back in the Roman era. It is also believed to be the root of the word salary.
Symbol of friendship:
Back in the 1950’s it was said to bring ‘bad luck’ to spill salt, which also goes back to ancient Rome, with the 1556 Hieroglyphica of Piero Valeriano Bolzani reporting that salt ‘was formerly a symbol of friendship, because of its lasting quality.
Often used then to preserve fish and other foods for a very long time, it was presented to guests before other food, to signify the abiding strength of friendship. Only a handful of Gozitan and Maltese salt pans remain today. Locally they are referred to as salini.
Process of Sea-Salt making:
During the summer months, crystals begin to form as soon as the sea water enters the larger and deeper of the coastline basins, known as the mamma (the mother). Here, the salt water is left to evaporate and become more concentrated for eight days, after which it is moved to the smaller, warmer salt pans situated further away from the sea.
After about one week all the water will have evaporated, leaving behind a thick layer of salt that is allowed to dry for another three days prior to harvest. About two kilogrammes of salt is gathered from each small pan, and once the crystals are collectively stored in sacks, they are ready for packaging, distribution and consumption.
Chefs and gastronomes are discovering the outstanding flavours of the Gozitan varieties harvested from the sea. The salt flakes obtained from this most natural source add outstanding flavour to many a fresh local dish, from Hobz biz-zejt, sundried tomatoes and briny olives, to rabbit stew and lampuki pie.
Turn back the Clocks:
To watch the salt being harvested from Gozo, is to turn back the clock thousands of years. At a time when myths and legends walked the earth and sailed the seas. Lets hope it will continue to inspire many more generations to come.
Photo was taken by Janet Bulmer @ diveSMART Gozo
Photo by Janet Bulmer @ Dive Smart Gozo