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The salt of the sea


Business Spotlight - epaper ⋅ Ausgabe 10/2021 vom 22.09.2021

GLOBAL BUSINESS

ADVANCED AUDIO

“ These salt pans have been in my family since 1800,” Josephine Xuereb says proudly. “They were chiselled by my ancestors. I am now the fifth generation of my family to work here.”

Xuereb has been harvesting sea salt since her childhood at Xwejni Bay on the northern coast of the Maltese island of Gozo. Of the two-kilometre stretch of salt pans in this area, only a few are still in use today. The work is physically demanding, so many people found other jobs and stopped working in the salt pans when they had a chance. “Most of them have been abandoned,” Xuereb remarks, flicking through an album of previous salt harvests as she speaks. “To have a genuine product, you have to work hard for it.”

Artikelbild für den Artikel "The salt of the sea" aus der Ausgabe 10/2021 von Business Spotlight. Dieses epaper sofort kaufen oder online lesen mit der Zeitschriften-Flatrate United Kiosk NEWS.
Xwejni Salt Pans: Josephine (right) and David Xuereb refill the pans with seawater

Salt farming

The salt pans are composed of a number of basins, known as feeder pools, and several shallower pans. In the past, the water flowed into these basins through man-made ...

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... canals hewn into the rock. “My ancestors used to put up a tripod with a bucket and lift the water from one pan to another,” Xuereb explains.

Nowadays, the work is slightly easier than it was in the past, as the seawater is distributed using a motor pump. But this is still the only machine used in the process. The remaining work is done manually. The seawater is left to concentrate in the feeder pool. “The longer it is there, the greater the thickness of the salt,” says Xuereb. “When it is distributed to the smaller pans, within seven to eight days, the salt is ready to be extracted.”

The Gozitan summer can get very hot, so it is important that salt farmers start early to avoid the midday sun. The working day usually begins around five in the morning. “We start brushing each pan one by one with the broom. Then we make a big mountain of salt. It is a very delicate product. It contains iodine and magnesium,” Xuereb says, dipping her finger into a small pot of salt. “The salt is then left to drain for one day before it is bagged up into industrial sacks.”

After the harvest

Even when the salt harvest is over, there is always a lot of work to be done, as the upkeep of the pans is time-consuming. “Erosion breaks the embankments on the sides of the pans,” Xuereb explains. “If there is a leak, then the water runs out. No water, no salt, no money!” The structure of the pans must be maintained to ensure the best results. Repairs are done with pebbles and cement, using the same techniques that Xuereb’s ancestors would have used.

In the past, the coastal road did not exist, which made transporting the salt from the pans to the storeroom more difficult than it is today. “They used to bring the salt in bamboo baskets on their backs and tip it in here,” Xuereb says, gesturing towards the cave-like space behind her, known as L-Ghar tal-Melh (Maltese for “the cave of the salt”).

Now, the small limestone storeroom houses not only the equipment necessary for the salt harvest — such as motor pumps, brooms and tubes — but also contains a number of framed newspaper cuttings that demonstrate the international success of the salt pans.

Food preservation

When Josephine Xuereb’s parents took over the pans in 1969, salt was necessary for food preservation, as the locals had no refrigerators. “Every Saturday, my father used to go around Gozo selling salt, and I used to go with him,” she recalls. “At that time, people consumed a lot of salt because they made cheeselets that they wanted to preserve, or had tomatoes, capers, olives and tuna that otherwise wouldn’t keep. There wasn’t any means of packaging. People used to come with a pot and say, ‘I need two kilos, three kilos’.”

In 1974, Xuereb’s father, Emmanuel Cini, came up with the idea of selling the salt in small polythene bags, making the portions easier to carry home. “He was very forward-thinking.” She throws an appreciative glance over at her parents, who still come every summer to oversee the salt harvest.

A different perception

Moving with the times has been essential for the survival of the business. Solar evaporation of seawater may be the oldest method of salt extraction, but the perception of salt has changed.

AUDIO

You can hear Josephine Xuereb talking about her work on Business Spotlight Audio. To order, go to www. aboshop.spotlightverlag.de

“I am now the fifth generation of my family to work here”

Nowadays, coarse, mineral-rich sea salt is seen as a quality artisan product rather than an absolute essential. The focus is no longer on practicality, but on aesthetics and good marketing. Small bags wrapped in burlap sackcloth are placed in wicker baskets in front of the old storeroom door, making them look appealing — and, more importantly, Instagrammable.

Today, the salt pans have an active social media presence, which has been fuelled by celebrity visits and international media appearances. Celebrity chefs, such as Austrian Johann Lafer and Canadian Dennis Prescott, have visited the pans, prompting more interest from culinary students. The salt pans were also featured in the Canadian Netflix series Restaurants on the Edge, which Prescott starred in, the German TV programme Die Sendung mit der Maus (see box on p. 14) and the UK TV series The Apprentice.

Filming wasn’t always easy, though, due to the unpredictability of the elements. “When there is a north wind, the sea comes up and washes the salt away. In winter, that is really good, because it cleans the rock, but if it happens during the summer, then our salt is disrupted, and we stop,” Xuereb explains. “For example, when we were filming for Die Sendung mit der Maus, it was booked for the first two weeks of July. We did the filming and then, by the second week, there was a big storm and then it was disrupted. Then it takes longer to pick up again.”

Tradition and future

YouTuber Haley Dasovich also featured the site on her channel “Hayley Takes on the World”, where she created a video about her experience working as a salt farmer for a day as part of her “Jobs Around the World” series (see box on p. 14). “I found out about the Xwejni Salt Pans through a friend when I was in Malta and thought it was the most interesting job I’d come across, so I asked them if I could collaborate with them,” the YouTuber explains.

Dasovich is not the only one to have created online content at the site. Wedding photographers, tourists and influencers are among those who have tagged and posted content online related to the Xwejni Salt Pans.

Increased interest

This greater interest in the site can also present problems, however. As a group of tourists thunder by on quad bikes, and others perch on the low wall separating the salt pans from the road, Josephine Xuereb throws an anxious glance in their direction. “We don’t want them walking on the salt pans. The salt gets contaminated and dirty otherwise,” she says. “It’s an agricultural piece of land. We have to keep the salt clean. We have a big problem here because of trespassing and diving.” While some tourists do still break the rules, the majority come to the site to taste the salt and learn more about this age-old tradition.

As awareness of the importance of sustainability increases, so does people’s interest in where their food comes from. The Xwejni Salt Pans are therefore not just a piece of this small Mediterranean island’s history, but also a sign of a trade that continues to withstand the test of time.

The marriage of this ancient practice with online publicity makes the future of the salt pans feel more secure. But beyond the selfies, the poses and the drone footage, salt farming involves hard labour, dedication and complete reliance on the elements. As Josephine Xuereb says: “My family has been tending the pans lovingly for years, but it is the wind, seawater and sun that do the magic.”

WHERE DOES SALT COME FROM?

● The Xwejni Salt Pans were featured in the German television programme Die Sendung mit der Maus in 2017. In this episode, you can see the entire sea-salt extraction process, from pumping the water into the feeder pools to the final salt harvest. You can find the video here: https:// tinyurl.com/vtpkfw3k

● YouTuber Haley Dasovich’s video (sponsored by Sony) about the Xwejni Salt Pans can be found here: https://tinyurl. com/y2fj5n6n

MELITA CAMERON-WOOD is a half British, half Maltese writer and editor at Business Spotlight. Contact: global@ business-spotlight.de