This is the story of how an ancient Roman practice ended up becoming the joy of one man’s life. It is also a story of one of my favorite islands in the world and one incredible condiment.
That practice is salt harvesting, the man is Mr. Emmanuel Cini, and the island is Gozo.
As most Mediterranean people will tell you, salt, which, apart from being a key factor in the development of modern human society, is the keystone of all Mediterannean recipes. It’s also a practice that has remained relatively unchanged for thousands of years. Though no longer used as currency for Roman soldiers or to barter for goods that could not be produced in the region, this magical ingredient is now on every table, in every kitchen, on the shelves of every restaurant. It is also the most important ingredient in Gozitan kitchens, where people use it to preserve tuna fish, make sundried tomatoes, brine olives, keep capers fresh, and flavor breads, pastas, cheeses, and pizzas. It also just so happens to be my favorite ingredient (I think it’s genetic because my grandmother dumps salt on everything) and the entire livelihood of the Cini family.
Though Emmanuel and Rose have been harvesting salt from Gozo’s clear Mediterranean waters for the past 46 years, the Cini family is no stranger to the delicate and difficult work of salt harvesting: they’ve been working the Xwejni salt pans for more than five generations. Today, the business, which was revived by Emmanuel in the late 1960s, is run by Emmanuel and Rose, their daughter Josephine, and their son-in-law David, in much the same way as it would have been thousands of years ago. Like a lot of Gozitan families who work in agriculture, they like to do things the traditional way.
When Emmanuel married into the family in the late 1960s, most of the salt pans hadn’t been used for a few years and weren’t necessarily in the best shape. He decided, along with Rose, to clean them up and revive the salt harvesting business. In May 1974, Mr. Cini harvested the first grain of salt from his tax-xtajta, the salt pans he had chiseled from his own hands. A few years later, in 1974, he made a decision that would change their livelihood forever: he decided to bag the salt, put the Cini name on it, and sell it to shops and grocery stores all over the island. In an instant, his salt went, in a sense, viral. (Case in point: Mr. Cini is known all over the island as the Salt Baron of Gozo).
The process for harvesting salt is actually quite simple, despite modern conveniences and technologies that could, in theory, make the process a little easier. As you can see in the pictures, the Cinis have maintained the original salt pan rivulets, rows upon rows of neatly patterned squares at the shoreline. These squares, which are lined with the pans, stay filled with salty sea water as it lunges in waves onto the store from May to September. During those months, the family all works together to get the salt from the sea water into the cave, a process that includes:
- Making sure the pans (there are 300 of them) stay filled with sea water (the Mediterranean contains a little over 3% salt in it naturally, which is why it’s an excellent source for sea salt harvesting)
- Letting the water evaporate for 7 days
- Scooping what is leftover into shallower pans
- Letting the leftover salty mush stand for another 7 days
- Sweeping the remaining salt into large mounds
- Letting the salt mounds drain for as long as it takes for the salt to dry into crystals
- Collecting it into buckets to be hauled up to the cave, where it is packaged and safely stowed away in a nice, cool cave
During the peak harvesting season, from June to July, the Cinis are one busy family. Imagine this: just to make one kilogram of salt (that’s about two pounds), the Cinis need to harvest 24 liters of sea water. This means, to keep their business up and serve their customers, that they must carry up to 3 tons of salt from their pans for storage and packing every week. And salt is heavy. There are no mechanical processes, no artificial heating or cooling, and absolutely no additives whatsoever added to the final salt. It’s nothing more than just plain sodium chloride, lovingly brought up, by hand, from the all-natural Mediterranean Sea.
It’s tough work, but as Mr. Cini will tell you, he loves working in the sun, with the earth, every day of every year. As one would expect, his skin proudly shows many years of sun and physical labor, and there is a true joy in his eyes when he speaks about his work and the family business he has been able to revive.
After visiting with Mr. Cini and watching Josephine and David raking salt into mounds atop the flats, I’ve grown a new appreciation for the process. For one, I realize now that harvesting is not easy—it takes many hands to create even a pinch of salt and many weeks of work to create the salt we buy in the store. I also realize that every grain of salt I use in my cooking was brought up from the sea by someone, someone like Mr. Cini, whose nearly half a century of work has given flavor to thousands and thousands of Gozitan and Maltese dishes, dishes I’ve tried so hard to replicate in my own kitchen.
Where to Find Xwejni Salt
Though lots of Maltese and Gozitan groceries now carry little burlap bags of Mr. And Mrs. Cini’s salt, you can also find it by visiting them at their little salt shop, which is inside a small cave that has been carved into the limestone rock near the flats, or you can pass by their roadside stand any day of the week anytime between 10:30-17:00 (around 5 p.m.) and buy as many bags as you’d like. You can find them on Gozo’s northern coast, just outside the small city of Marsalforn. They have two sizes to choose from at their roadside shop, and now that I’m back home in the United States, I really, really wish I’d bought the bigger size for a little bit more money. The smaller burlap bag, which cost 5 Euros, has lasted a few months and gone into most of my cooking and done wonders atop foccacia bread, served alongside sundried tomatoes, mild white cheese, and olive oil, or crumbled on top any chicken or meat dish. However, I’m going to have to be a bit more sparing with it if I want it to last until my next trip to Gozo.
Save a couple of bags for me, Mr. Cini!
Article and photographs by Kristin Winet.