Harvesting Sea Salt on the Maltese Island of Gozo

 

harvesting-sea-salt-gozo-malta-salt-pansOn the northern coast of the Maltese island of Gozo, mounds of snow-white salt sparkle under the summer sun in salt evaporation pans. About 300 of these pans cover a section of Gozo’s northern coast, called the Xwejni Salt Pans. It’s believed that such pans have existed here since Roman times.

When we visited the Xwejni Pans last month, three of the family members who manage them were carefully sweeping the moist salt. Like gardeners raking the pebbles of a Zen rock garden, the men and women methodically moved the salt crystals to ensure the water evenly evaporated. Not far away, a mammoth mound of prepped salt was cloaked with a black tarp. With the family’s salt shop just across the road, housed in a wind-swept cave, we were guessing they’d soon be carrying it away to be bagged and sold.

I’ve read that about 24 liters (just over 6 gallons) of sea water is needed to produce about 1 kg of salt (roughly 2 pounds). During the peak summer months, this family might be able to produce as much as 3 tons of salt each week!

Malta Mounds of Salt Pans Gozo

On a Mediterranean island where snow is almost unheard of, it’s initially jarring to see these sparkling mounds of white glistening under the sun’s scorching rays!

Sea Salt Harvesting Gozo Malta

Pumping water from the sea into the pans (left) and tiny mounds (right).

Malta Mounds of Sea Salt Pans Gozo

Salt Pans Salterns Gozo Malta

To protect the integrity of the salt, it’s important that visitors not walk inside the salt pans (left)! On the right, one of the brooms used by the family to ‘rake’ the salt crystals.

Raking Sea Salt Pans Gozo Malta Mediterranean

I haven’t yet been to Japan, but seeing these family members gently sweep the salt brought to mind imagery of gardeners methodically tending to rock gardens.

Gozo Malta Wind Swept Landscape Stone Formations

The islands of Gozo and Malta are known for their dramatic, wind-swept stone formations.

Sell Sea Salt Gozo Malta

The family sells their hand-made sea salt – either beside the pans, or in their shop across the street.

Gozo Malta Salt Pans

Salt Pans Rock Formations Gozo Malta

Sea Salt Pans Gozo Malta

Video of this Experience:

Harvesting Sea Salt Gozo Malta Video

Where in the World?

Planning Pointers:

  • Gozo is one of the islands making up the Maltese Archipelago; it’s about a 20-minute ferry ride from Malta’s ferry terminal in Ċirkewwa. See the Gozo Channel website for ticket prices and a timetable of Malta to Gozo ferry crossings.
  • The Xwejni Salt Pans are located on Gozo’s northern coast, not far from the tiny resort town of Marsalforn. The family generally harvests salt here from May through September, with June and July being the peak harvest months. Some of the salt is packaged in burlap bags, lending it even more character; the bags sell for €2 to €5. I wanted to purchase some, but couldn’t given our limited luggage space! Visit the family-run business’ Xwejni Salt Pans Facebook page for more details. (I contacted Josephine via Facebook after our visit, and she was very responsive. She is a fifth-generation harvester, on her mother’s side of the family!)
  • Given how small Gozo is, it’s rather easy to get around the island using its bus system. Just know that buses might not run as frequently on Gozo as they do on the island of Malta. Use Malta Public Transport’s Trip Planner or Route Map to plan your excursions.
  • As for accommodation options, Gozo offers a mix of self-catering apartments and hotels (affiliate link), even the chance to rent a converted farmhouse.
  • Visit Gozo’s official tourism website for more information about the island.
  • Do you need more trip-planning inspiration? This link contains an index of all my posts from Malta.

 

Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved. The video is a creation of my husband, Shawn.

34 Comments on “Harvesting Sea Salt on the Maltese Island of Gozo

  1. I never really thought about how sea salt is gathered…. once again I learned something!

    • Indeed, we’re lucky to have so much time to uncover these spots, Darlene! The next time you and your husband visit, I highly recommend spending some time on the island of Gozo as well. It’s quieter and more rural than Malta, and sometimes described as “how Malta once was.” We’d contemplated living there, but it probably would’ve been a bit difficult to make it back and forth to classes and appointments on Malta.

    • Absolutely, Carol! It’s hard to look at food the same way, when you’ve learned what goes in to producing it. Meeting beekeepers, winemakers, and cheesemakers has made me not only appreciate my food more, but also scrutinize how pure it is. It certainly illustrates how interconnected we are with nature.

  2. This is fascinating! I’d love to see this in person. I’d never thought much before about where sea salt comes from, but now I know. I love learning things like this.

    • Hi Juliann! This is my first time seeing sea salt being harvested in person too. In many parts of the world, it’s more often done on an industrial scale, so we felt lucky to glimpse it being worked by hand. Like farmers, this family is so reliant on the weather for their livelihood. Unfortunately, they told me that it’s been a rough year, weather-wise.

  3. I love the idea of these caring people carefully sweeping the salt – like precious gems. We would have flat, uninteresting food without salt. No wonderful it has been used as currency. With all the wonderful sea salt available to us it is difficult to understand people still using unpleasant chemical flavoured salt. Tricia, I especially loved your golden sandals !! XX Virginia

    • “Carefully sweeping the salt – like precious gems” – that is fitting, Virginia! Since I shared this set of photos, I was in contact with one of the family members who manages these salt pans on Gozo. Unfortunately, she said that a recent storm disrupted the harvest this year, ushering in a premature end to their season. Have you ever tried making your own salt, on your stovetop?

      Thanks also for your kudos regarding the sandals! They’re ultra comfortable and supportive, made by Børn. :)

    • Thank you, Chelle! It sounds like you’ve spent a lot of time exploring the Mediterranean. Were the people in Mallorca working their salt pans in a similar way as this? It’s fascinating seeing how techniques vary from place to place, based upon different geography and the materials available.

  4. We saw this being done in the eastern Algarve, near Tavira. The pans there were larger, long and narrow. This must have been common in many countries with coastlines as in Scotland there is a town called Prestonpans, the name said to come from monks (priests) who used the pans for manufacturing salt which of course was in those times a precious commodity as it was used as a preservative for fish and meat in pre-refridgeration days. But in most places it has probably died out.

    • Dorothy, it sounds like while this practice has faded in many parts of the world, there are still a small number of people harvesting sea salt this way. You mentioned the Algarve, and another reader said she saw it being done in Mallorca too. I was surprised to read that there might be 40 such harvesting spots on Malta and on Gozo, but I don’t know if all of those are still in use. Regarding the value of salt centuries ago, I also happened about an interesting article mentioning that the word ‘salary’ might be derived from the Latin word, ‘salarium’, perhaps referring to Roman soldiers being paid money so they could purchase salt. I love tidbits of information like that. Wishing you a lovely weekend! I’m actually keeping my fingers crossed for some rain here, but I think it might pass us by.

    • That’s thoughtful of you to say. Thank you, Gerard! Shawn and I have since happened upon another set of Maltese salt pans. They weren’t in use, but people – and their pets – were actually sunbathing in them. :) Wish you a wonderful Wednesday.

    • Hi Ellie, and thank you! I was also curious about the process – so much so that we’ve twice stopped by these salt pans. The first time it was early spring, and they were empty, but once summer rolled around there was a hub of activity. I’d like to see how people in other countries harvest it by hand, plus how it’s done on a more commercial level. Being close to your food chain makes you look at it in a different way, doesn’t it?

    • Hi Mariko, we didn’t actually get to try our hand at harvesting, but merely watching the careful work of this family was fascinating. Suffice it to say that I won’t look at sea salt in the same way from now on! :)

    • Sorry for the belated reply, Andrew. We’ve actually just left Malta after living there for one year. We’d thought about trying to live on Gozo, as opposed to in Valletta, but it would’ve made it hard to get where we needed to go on a daily basis. How often do you visit Gozo? I’ve seen bits in the news lately about investors wanting to develop it more. I sincerely hope it won’t end up becoming overdeveloped like Malta! The open spaces and its quieter nature make it a special place.

      • Malta is one of my favourite places. I went last year and stayed at Mellihia for about the fifth time. I go back in a fortnight and take my grandchildren.
        I have noticed big changes. Mdina has been over-restored and it seemed to me that there is a real danger that they will do the same to Victoria on Gozo. I liked Valletta – nicely upgraded I thought!
        What really disappointed me last year was the privatised bus service which was just awful, I just loved those old yellow coaches!

      • When I first visited Malta, I thought those vintage buses were delightful too. Many of the locals we met lamented the loss of them as well, with some saying that the quality of the service had suffered since it was privatized. Not having a car during our year in Malta, we got very acquainted with the new buses though and the crazy traffic. It sometimes took us an hour just to go just a few kilometers. With school back in session, a big debate is again raging about what to do about the clogged roadways. It’s a pity they did away with the railway back in the 1930s! There’s simply too many cars for such a small island.

        You’re right about Valletta undergoing quite a transformation. We were lucky to find an apartment to rent there as finished ones are in short supply as many undergo restoration. (Let’s just say that a frequent sound in our neighborhood – even at midnight or 4 AM – was a jackhammer!) Valletta will be a European Capital of Culture in 2018, and it’s again a popular place to live, shop, and partake in events.

        Wishing you a lovely visit with your grandkids! We thought October weather was splendid last year, so I hope it’s the same for you all. Will you be staying in Mellieħa again?

      • Yes, back again to Mellieha Bay Hotel, it is one of my favourites, very family friendly. I guess I will have to go to Popeye Village. My grandson likes castles so I am hoping the Valletta fortress is open again now. I certainly plan to take them to Gozo.

      • Our friends took us by Popeye Village for a peek from afar; I’m sure they’ll love it. As for Fort Saint Elmo in Valletta, it should be open and it has the National War Museum too. I don’t think Fort Saint Angelo (across the harbor in the Three Cities) is officially open yet though, as it was only sporadically opened for special events during our year in Malta. Finally, on the 22nd of October, the Rolex Middle Sea Race kicks off in the Grand Harbour. It’s dramatic seeing about 100 racing yachts clustered there, awaiting the cannon to be fired, which signals the race’s start. http://www.visitmalta.com/en/event-details/2016-10/rolex-middle-sea-race-7943

    • Hi Milly, I hope they’ll still be in operation when you visit! One of the family members who works at the salt pans wrote me a few weeks ago and said their harvesting season had ended abruptly, due to weather challenges. Of course the salt pans will be still be there – I’m just not sure you’ll see them overflowing with salt. I still think they’re worth visiting either way.

      As for how long we stayed, we’ve actually been living on Malta for the last 11 months, so we’ve been lucky to have made a few trips over to Gozo. You must have a job that sends you on lots of adventures?

      • Hi Tricia, I work in travel so yes I get to travel a lot with work. But this is a holiday as I’m going to see my dad who lives on Gozo, my boyfriend hasn’t been to Gozo before so I’m going to show him the sights. Looking forward to it! Hopefully the salt will still be there. Milly

      • Wishing you a lovely trip, Milly! If you’re curious about the status of the salt pans, you can also get in touch with the family who manages them via their Facebook page. The page details are listed in my Planning Pointers section.

    • It is a stunning place to put in a day’s work, but I bet it can be excruciating being in the summertime rays all day! I also hoped we’d had the chance to try our hands at harvesting. Our friends run ecotours for this type of experience, so we’ll have to return to Malta someday to participate.

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