Gozitan Salt Is Gozitan Gold
Salt. Such an ordinary commodity. Something we take for granted, but couldn’t possibly live without it. Did you know, than until today Cini’s family from Gozo still produces salt using the old Xwejni salt pans? Yes, in this modern world, they’re still keeping this tradition alive. But what’s the story?
I’ve passed by Xwejni salt pans countless times, but this time I’ve stopped and visited the tiny Salt Shop owned by Emmanuel Cini and his family. The salt pans are fascinating as they are. Picturesque. Charming. Photogenic. Every person that passes by, stops to take a picture. Which is not surprising. But one’s fascinations raises once you get to know the story. The passion. The dedication. The persistence.
This year, in 2019, Emmanuel Cini with his family celebrate 50 years anniversary of salt collection! I had the pleasure to meet and speak with Emmanuel Cini (76), his daughter Josephine Xuereb (48) and granddaughter Sarah Xuereb (17). And here is the story of the Xwejni salt collection.
History of Xwejni’s Salt Pans
Yes, there are salt pans in several other locations around Malta and Gozo, but these are by far the largest and most impressive. The history of Gozitan salt pans goes all the way to Phoenician times! When the Maltese islands were under the rule of the Order of St. John, the Knights held a monopoly on the salt production and those who harvested salt without a permission could face heavy penalties.
As I didn’t know how did the salt pans get to the Cini’s family I called Josephine Xuereb, Emmanuel’s daughter and asked her. “It has been running in my family since 1800. There was a man who worked the salt pans and he passed on his trade. It comes from my mother’s side. In fact my great grandfather, and grandfather did a lot of work in the salt pans. My beloved parents have been tending it lovingly since 1969.” said Josephine.
As I’ve already mentioned, this year (2019) Emmanuel Cini and his family celebrate 50 years of their involvement in the salt collection! From talking to Mr. Cini I could tell that the enthusiasm and love for the trade is still there even after so many years! I mean lucky the person who can say that about his job after half a century!
I was also very pleased to meet Sarah Xuereb (17), E. Cini’s granddaughter. She is the 6th generation of salt collectors! A very nice young lady, who is genuinely proud to follow her family’s footsteps and keeping the tradition going. Sarah sells in the shops, collects the salt as well as packages the salt at home to be then sold here as souvenirs.
Sarah, who spent half of her life with her family at the salt pans recalls one beautiful memory while we talk. “I remember, when I was a little kid, coming here at 5am, the sun was just starting to rise and I’m trying to help with the salt collection… One of the best memories I have” Sarah said.
How is the salt made?
The salt is produces from natural elements such as sun, wind and the evaporation of sea water. And how does it work exactly? Basically there are 12 big pools which are filled with sea water pumped straight from the sea. From there the smaller pools and pans are filled using the watering channel system.
There are 350 small pans that are used for salt extraction. Then the water is left to evaporate. However the salt pans never dry up completely as otherwise the salt would stick to the bottom and it would be very hard to collect it.
After couple of days family members start to sweep and collect the salt in piles. Then the salt is collected from all the small piles into one large one, letting it dry. The harvest is usually once a week depending on the weather. The salt is then stored in caves carved into the coastal rock.
If the sea is rough and the waves reach the salt pans they dilute the water and all the brine is lost. The whole process has to start all over again.
All the basins and channels were hand cut in the flat limestone coastline. There are located in the immediate proximity of the sea. Meaning that during winter times they often face violent storms with high waves requiring regular maintenance during the off season. When the salt pans are damaged by storms or erosion they repair them one by one (every pans which produces salt) by small rocks (pebbles) and cement. After that they are ready for three months of a busy season.
The salt harvesting season is during the hot summer months. Weather permitting. It usually runs from the month of June till the end of August. “The best season, in the last 50 years, was in 1977” remembers Mr. Cini “we started from 1st May and worked non stop until October. And the largest amount of salt ever collected was 42 tons!”
But that’s a day like in a life of a salt collector? Well, you know that the summers in Malta are very hot and the sun is very strong. To be able to harvest the salt, you need a really early start.
“On harvest day we wake up very early round 4.00am to go down to Xwejni to start collecting salt. We prepare our tools, brushes, buckets and spades. When the salt is collected we start the refill of the pans with salt water so we’ll prepare for another collection for the following week – always if weather permits.” Josephine explains.
Salt collection is Cini’s family only source of living. Every season is different. One year they can harvest dozens of tuns of sea salt, other year we can hardly collect any. In a good season, the family harvests about 20 tonnes of salt. Last summer (2018) they managed less than half due to bad weather.
Sea Salt Sale
Can you still make a living out of salt collection? Well, the market has changed quite a lot. The days when people bought large quantities of salt to preserve food is long gone and the number of salt farmers has drastically declined. However nowadays there is a good demand from tourists. Plus the trend is to opt for natural and organic food.
And where can you buy this unique artisan manually collected sea salt? Xwejni salt can be found for sale only in couple of local groceries on the island of Gozo branded as Xwejni Salt E. Cini (only when the season is good enough). The “fancy ones” in burlap bags labelled Leli tal-Melh are found for sale only from this tiny shop at their Xwejni salt pans.
Xwejni salt pans are arguably one of the oldest (if not the oldest) still functioning salt pans in the world! This unique trade is part of Gozo’s cultural heritage and has to be safeguarded!
After you buy a bag (two or three) of this natural sea salt – for home use, as a souvenir, or just a gesture to support Cini’s family and their efforts continue walking along the coast. There are more (unused) salt pans stretching over 3km of Gozo’s coastline.
It is one of the best places on the island to go for a nice, comfortable walk. Plus the scenery is so unique, you will feel like that you are walking on another planet.. If you stick to the coast you can walk all the way to Wied il-Ghasri! Another must see location on the island of Gozo!
This is all from me this time. I hope you enjoyed the read and learnt something new! Keep tuned, there is more coming your way!