“The sun lifts the lightest part of the water, and the salt remains in the basins,” says Leli. We’re standing on the Xwejni Salt Pans, which 71-year-old Emmanuel Cini, known as Leli, has been tending every day for the past 45 years.
The pans are a series of shallow squares which have been carved out across a flat plateau of limestone rock near Qbajjar Bay on the island of Gozo, the sister island of Malta, in the Mediterranean. Most of the pans have been here for more than 350 years, dating back to the time of the Knights of St John.
Leli shows me how, during the season, from May to September, they fill the salt pans from the large square reservoirs of sea water dotted around the pans – ‘warming pans’ – and how the water starts to crystallise and then evaporate in the sun, leaving behind a harvest of sea salt, rich in minerals.
During winter, when stormy waves wash over the pans, Leli and his daughter Josephine work to maintain them and repair any damage. Weather plays a big factor in salt production. “Today it’s very humid – 95%, so there will be no salt,” says Leli. “If there’s bad weather, wind or humidity, there’s no salt. The rocks are cold,” he says.
The salt pans produce an abundance of fresh sea salt each season, which is sold on to shops and restaurants. It is just one example of how Gozitan islanders use ancient methods and their abundant natural resources to make a living and with a zero carbon footprint. Although Gozo has many modern aspects, I am surprised how many local traditions I find that are still part of daily life.
Some of the sea salt from Xwejni is used in another tradition, the making of Ġbejniet – a small round white cheese made from unpasteurised sheep or goat’s milk. In the past, each family would make their owndrying the cheese in special wooden boxes, usually on the roof of the house.
The cheese is either served fresh (like mozzarella) or dried, flavoured with crushed pepper and local ingredients such as tomatoes, olive oil and chili pepper or even local wine.
Rikardu Zammit of Ta’ Rikardu restaurant in the old Citadel in Victoria, has a farm and makes which is then served in his restaurant. His cheese-making room is along a tiny narrow street in the Citadel – itself a thick-walled fortress which was built in the 15th century to protect the islanders during invasions.
“Everything starts at the farm,” says Rikardu. “We have 200 sheep and goats. We start early, sometimes at 3am, because of the heat. After milking, we come here.”
To make the cheese mixture, Rikardu takes sheep or goat’s milk and either adds rennet, or uses a more traditional method with the stomach of a baby goat or lamb added to whey from the cheese.
Once this is prepared, he fills small white baskets with the liquid cheese mixture and adds salt. The whey drains from the baskets and the cheese forms a jelly-like texture. After the cheese has settled (a day or two), Rikardu turns the cheese over in the basket. The pattern on the bottom gives the cheese its traditional pattern.
Rikardu dries the cheese on the roof in the sun – as long as the wind has no desert sand in it. “Yesterday we had the Sirocco from the desert, it is not good” he says. “We pray for north winds.”
Later, we tuck into both the fresh and dried versions of the cheese at Ta’Rikardu restaurant in the Citadel – I eat mine plain, but I see locals pouring olive oil and balsamic vinegar on their fresh cheeselets.
In the heat of the afternoon, exploring the tiny shaded streets of The Citadel, I come across The Bastion Lace Shop, where lace maker Maria Mizzi is working on an intricate pattern, with 50 bobbins of thread (linen and silk) on the go at the same time. It looks complicated.
Maria tells me that some of the pieces for sale in the shop, such as lace jackets, have taken up to four months and 300 hours to make. Lace making was a tradition in each Gozitan family, with patterns passed down from mother to daughter and Maria’s mother was a lace maker. “It’s a tradition that’s dying out,” says Maria. “It’s very time consuming, and people won’t pay for the hours of work needed.”
Like the Leli the salt-panner and Rikardu the cheese-maker, Maria’s craft not just a job, it’s a big part of her life and she has a passion for the tradition and the art of making lace. “It’s like music,” she says. “First you learn the notes, then you learn how to apply them and then you can write your own music,” says Marika. “It’s very therapeutic, you get lost in it…”
For more information, see Xwejni Salt Pans on Facebook. Ta’ Rikardu, Triq il-Fosos, Citadel, Victoria, Gozo, tel +356 21555953. Bastion Lace Shop, Bieb I-Mdina street, Citadel, Victoria, Gozo, tel +356 2156 1471. For more information on Gozo, see www.visitgozo.com.