Salt Sifters

How Gozo’s artisanal salt makes its journey from sea to table

A salt farmer, Josephine Xuereb, at work in the Xwejni salt pans in Gozo, Malta. The fieldwork required to collect salt often involves extreme exposure to the sun. Naima Hall
30 September, 2023

On the Maltese island of Gozo, the salt pans appeared as sheets of ice on a thirty-four degree Celsius summer day, in August last year. Josephine Xuereb, a fifth-generation salt farmer, began harvesting what she referred to as “summer snow.” Xuereb said that her family’s salt was composed of three ingredients, “sea, sun and wind.”

In the Bible, salt was used metaphorically to signify durability, loyalty, permanence, fidelity and purification. In many respects, these metaphors are better understood when one views a birthplace of salt—what salt looks like straight out of the womb and then raised by the familial stewards, who harness the elements of nature and care for it between its journey from the sea to your table.

Xuereb and her family of origin, the Cini family, have maintained a set of the historic salt pans in Xwejni Bay—some reportedly as old as three hundred and fifty years—in the northern part of Gozo, for over a hundred years. The family’s method of harvest and production has not changed much since its earliest days of operation. The pans here are treasured family heirlooms. Some segments have been broken by the sea and rebuilt using concrete and rock.

Aside from a rudimentary water pump used to fill the salt pans with ocean water, Xuereb said there is no mechanisation, no hired help and no chemical treatment of the artisanal salt produced by the Cini family under the name of Leli Tal-Melh—a name synonymous with her father’s, Emmanuel Cini, widely known as “Manuel, the Salt Man.” The fieldwork required to collect salt often involves extreme exposure to the sun. During the harvesting season, from April to August, peak daytime temperatures in Gozo can hover around thirty-one degrees Celsius, accompanied by oppressive humidity. In addition, salt pans reflect daylight like mirrors, serving up a double blow of solar intensity.

Naima Hall is a Brooklyn-based writer and photographer focusing on journalism, documentary and fine art photography projects in natural and underdeveloped environments. She is a member of the National Press Photographers Association and upholds the NPPA code of conduct for visual journalists.