In Gozo A Legacy of Salt Continues

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Photos and text by Naima Hall

In August, 2022, I travelled to Xwejni, a remote region of Gozo, Malta where I was granted the opportunity to interview fifth generation salt farmer, Josephine Xuereb, who is at the helm of a traditional salt harvesting practice that her family lineage has had stewardship over for more than one hundred years.

During our time together Xuereb and her family explained their history and trade practices and allowed me access to the family cave- a space near the salt pans that serves as the heart of family life.

 ©Naima Hall

The mediterranean has been an important salt producing region for several centuries, with coastal climates favorable for salt cultivation. Researchers have traced salt production in the Maltese Islands back as far as the medieval period, however the comprehensive history of the salt pans, including the area of Malsaforn where Leli Tal-Melh salt is produced by the Cini family, remain somewhat elusive.

According to historical records, the 16th and 17th centuries proved to be one of the most active for Maltese salinas after the Knights of Malta instituted price fixing monopolies mirroring Sicilian governance of salt, due to increased understanding of the value of the commodity, population increases and a desire to protect the asset from potential disruption from the Ottoman Turks. While there has been a continuous decline of family run salinas throughout Europe since the 1950’s, due to developmental projects, economic migration, tourism and fluctuations in demand for artisanal salt, there are still a few remaining families engaged in the multigenerational trade.n the area of Malsaforn, a centuries old tradition of stewardship over salt pans continues with Josephine Xuereb at the helm of the family practice formerly run by her father Emmanual Cini and his wife Rosa, who have since retired from working in the pans.

 ©Naima Hall

Salt pans, also referred to as salinas, salterns, salt gardens or salines in this region occur naturally, but in a symbiotic dance in which nature and humans work for mutual benefit, they are reinforced with man-made design to optimize utility and maintain the strength of the ecological framework. The Cini family work within what is described as “atypical”  or “artisanal” salinas, which refer to salt pans that are maintained traditionally by individual salters as opposed to saltwork pans in which mechanization is instituted for large scale pan cultivation and harvest.

 ©Naima Hall

The oldest pans in this family lineage have been estimated by researchers to be approximately one hundred and sixty years old and have been communicated by oral tradition to have likely been dug by Josephine’s great grandfather. For the last forty years Emmanuel Cini and his family–in addition to the production of salt–have been responsible for the conservation, restoration and land management of the salt pans. While the government does not currently recognize the salinas as historical sites and they are not listed as legally protected heritage property of the Maltese Islands, the Cini family work tirelessly to protect their geo-heritage on this micro-landscape.

©Naima Hall

Like tempered steel, Josephine seemingly grows stronger the more that she is stressed and pressurized by the elements inherent in her life as a salt farmer. On a typical day that begins at 4:00 a.m, Josephine’s skin is brushed by saline and pummeled by an unrelenting Gozitan sun along with humidity that would bring a grown man to tears, while she sweeps piles and carries heavy bags of salt from the salinas to transportation vehicles. 
The glare reflecting from the salt pans is intense, bleaching the environment and rendering it unnavigable without wearing both sunglasses and a head covering. Rather than grow weary in an environment that might be described as unforgivable, Josephine is revitalized, rejuvenated–channeling her ancestors as she continues her tasks with honor and reverence, expressing that, “working with nature is a privilege.” Having dominion over these pans, her job is to shepherd these table diamonds–summer snow–to families near and far looking for the rare treat of Leli Tal-Melh artisanal salt.

 ©Naima Hall
 ©Naima Hall

“I remember when it was fuller.” Josephine points out the doorway of the cave in the direction of Xwejni rock (also known as Lunar Hill) in the distance. Then she grabbed a family photo album that has been tarnished by salt and sun, but features a noticeably fatter image of Xwejni rock taken a few decades ago. The rock is so much bigger in the image that it almost looks doctored, but it’s clearly an authentic image. We talk about the effects of erosion on the rock and the salt pans. Josephine explained that the salt pans are limestone geological compositions designed partly by nature and partly by man.The sedimentary structure of the coast lent itself intrinsically to shallow platforms inherent to salt production, probably from its earliest formations, however through time, the Cini family have further designed and reinforced the pans to maximize their strength and utility. 
In addition to compensating for erosion that is incurred by weathering, the Cini family–as stewards of their land–do their best to prevent erosion that occurs at the hands of humans. From time to time divers come within close proximity of a delicate seaside portion of the pans, while some instagram-eager tourists elect to cross the border walking directly onto the private property of the salt pans, disrupting aspects of cultivation and the ecosystem. While the family can’t prevent all of the meddling, they do what they can to protect the land and educate the public.

Further to the right of the Cini salt pans are echoes of an earlier time when more families were producing salt. The eerie remnants of abandoned salt pans and caves are visually stunning but also create a haunting tapestry of things left behind and stories left untold. Gozo has been influenced by Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Greeks, Arabs and the British. To look at the abandoned salt pans and caves is like looking back in time at ancient ghosts of world history that helped to develop Gozo and its legacy of salt into the unique tapestry that it is today.

Naima Hall is a Brooklyn-based independently contracted photographer/writer with interests in the intersection of human society and the environment. Her images and written work have appeared most recently in Photojournalism Hub, GoNOMAD Travel Magazine, Wanderlust Travel Magazine and Corbeaux Magazine. A curated selection of her photos appear on the Smithsonian Magazine public archive. Naima holds master’s degrees in urban planning and education. She is a former United Nations employee currently serving as a tenured educator for the blind and Library of Congress certified Braille transcriber for the New York City Department of Education.

Naima Hall

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