Sea Salt in Malta & Gozo: Exploring Our Islands' Salt-Making Origins
by Karl Azzopardi
It comes as no surprise on an archipelago like ours, sea salt finds itself among the most sought-after artisanal products on the Maltese Islands. What started as a natural collaboration between sun and sea, developed into one of our islands' oldest cottage industries.
Nowadays, it also serves as a core tourist attraction during the summer months as tourists flock to salt pans in Gozo and Malta to watch salters (salt farmers) harvest this divine mineral. While the history behind the production of sea salt in Malta and Gozo is somewhat blurry, this article attempts to give an idea of how this artisanal craft came to be.
The Early Days of Sea Salt in Malta
Unfortunately, there are no clear reported records of the origins of harvesting sea salt in Malta, but anthropological research suggests that it began either during the Phoenician or Roman Era. At the time, salt was highly valued for its preservative properties so it was a valuable trade currency (as if we needed any more reason for colonisers to conquer our islands, am I right!?). In fact, the Roman Empire used it to pay their armies and interestingly enough the words 'soldier' and 'salary' are rooted in the Latin words for giving or receiving salt.
One might think that this meant our islands were rich at the time, but salt production was legally restricted due to its precious value. Therefore, it's most likely that at the time sea salt in Malta was derived from natural processes rather than through modern salt-making methods used for the mass production of salt.
During the Middle Ages, salt was still considered a commodity with the Norman Empire of Sicily building quite a monopoly around sea salt in Malta. The rise in corsairing on our islands during this epoch has also been partially attributed to this as pirates scouted our coasts for salt.
It was not until Malta was passed on to the Order of St John that making sea salt in Malta was developed into an actual business that contributed to the islands' economy.
The Rise of the Sea Salt Industry
One of the first recorded evidence of manmade salt pans in Malta dates back to the 16th century in a painting by acclaimed Italian painter Matteo Perez d' Aleccio depicting the Great Siege of Malta of 1565. Commissioned by Grand Master Jean Levesque de Cassiere, Perez d'Aleccio had painted scenes from this momentous event and in it, one can catch a glimpse of the perfectly symmetrical grid-structured Salini salt pans in Burmarrad.
It is believed that the Salini salt pans were inspired by the naturally occurring salt marshes of Mellieha. Maps from the 16th century, like the one drawn up by Giovanni Francesco Camocio circa 1565, labelled these salt marshes as 'Saline'. This could explain the name behind the area that we now know as is-Salini in Burmarrad which became the first site for modern salt-making on the islands and the largest in the archipelago.
New and more complex production methods of salt harvesting were introduced and some local craftsmen started building their own salt pans in Gozo and Malta based on the chequerboard design of is-Salini. This was done with the intention of creating enough salt to meet local and exportation demands. However, they didn't quite succeed in this due to conflicts at the time and the increase in salt quality standards across Europe.
It wasn't until the 18th century that the salt business really took off on our islands. So much so that the Knights set out on a plan to increase the number of salt pans in Malta and enlarge existing ones in order to keep up with demand. This was around the time when most of the salt pans we have nowadays were constructed, including the salt pans in Gozo.
The most well-known salt pans in Gozo are the Xwejni Salt Pans in Xwejni Bay which holds the largest salt-making area in Gozo. While there are indications of more primitive salt pans that are believed to date back to the Roman period, the majority of the Xwejni Salt Pans were developed in the mid-1700s following the Knight's grid structure. The Xwejni Salt Pans weren't the only salt pans in Gozo that were constructed during this time. One can find salt pans in Marsalforn, Qala, Dwejra, Xlendi and Wied il-Ghasri. However, the ones in Wied il-Ghasri, known as Tal-Arluggar, weren't really a success — quite the opposite actually.
The Tragic Tale of Tal-Arluggar Salt Pans in Gozo
An ambitious clockmaker who owned a piece of land above the Ghar il-Rih (Cathedral Cave) in Wied il-Ghasri thought up a master plan to truly capitalise on this boom in the salt-making business. The aspiring salter started by developing the typical grid-structured salt pans but being 40 to 50 feet above sea level, he soon came to realise that collecting sea water was an arduous task. So, in a stroke of genius, he thought it would be a brilliant idea to dig a well through to the cave below and use a mule-driven mill to collect seawater. But he should have really done his research first to avoid the series of unfortunate events that followed.
The first problem with this plan was that the clockmaker didn't think about covering the well which resulted in multiple accidents. This was soon followed by the unfortunate realisation that the rock surface where he dug his salt spans was extremely porous so most of the seawater was being absorbed by the rock before he could extract any salt. And that isn't even the worst part.
As autumn rolled in and the wind started to blow, the cave below his salt pans was flooded with raging waves. The force of the waves turned the well into a geyser that spouted seawater up to 20 metres in the air, landing ever so gracefully into the surrounding salt pans. This may have solved the clockmaker's problem with supplying seawater to his salt pans but it created a bigger problem. The spray from the well-turned-fountain was also spreading over the agricultural land that surrounded the area killing any crops and poisoning the soil.
To add insult to injury, the farmers who owned the adjacent land sued the clockmaker for destroying their land and asked for an extremely generous compensation. This was the last straw to break the clockmaker's back who fell deeply ill after this mishap and met his demise soon after.
The hole had to be dammed and filled in order to prevent further damage to nearby areas but one can still see the opening today emitting harrowing sounds on windy days that beckon the clockmaker's tragic tale.
Since the Knights of St John, the craft of salt-making has been passed on through generations and has become one of the most celebrated artisanal practices and tourist attractions in Malta and Gozo.