The salt-mines of Xwejni

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The salt-mines of Xwejni

They’re not exactly mines you know.  Not the type where people extract what it is they’re extracting from some underground deposit.  But they do involve extraction.  Of salt.  Not from the ground but from the blue Mediterranean.

Welcome to the salt-mines of Xwejni on the island of Gozo.  Neatly patterned squares on the rocky foreshore where the sea water slowly dries by baking in the strong sun, leaving the precious white crystals behind.  No mechanical processes, no artificial heating, no additives involved.  Just plain sodium chloride plus up to 84 trace minerals which make natural sea salt the important foodstuff that it is.  The only rock we actually harvest and eat.

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In winter, the crashing waves and the undulating swell ensure that enough sea water washes into the salt-pans to fill them to the brim.  In calmer weather they need manually assisted top-ups.  The water evaporates leaving a bit of salt behind. The cycle is repeated over and over until eventually a sizable mound of salt can be harvested from each square pan.  The water is nowadays topped up using electric pumps but traditionally involved the back-breaking task of lifting it from the sea with two buckets at either end of a pole held on one’s shoulders and emptying it into the pans.  Not only back-breaking work but also painful as the interaction of wooden pole and salt crystals on a bare-back combined to create nasty sores on raw skin.

Rock-cut salt pans are to be found in numerous parts of the coast of the Maltese Islands, but the biggest concentration of them are undoubtedly found in the Xwejni area of Gozo where an extensive network is to be found going on for about two kilometres almost all the way to Wied il-Ghasri. The top photo shows the place where the salt-pans start in Xwejni Bay, directly opposite a local landmark called the Qolla l-Bajda: an eroding mound of clay sediment resting on top of a soft globigerina limestone base.  Worth a visit at any time of the year, but late summer is best if you want to see the salt harvest itself.

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