ZEBBUG, Malta (Reuters) - Under the scorching Maltese sun, Josephine Xuereb carefully sweeps salt originating from the Mediterranean Sea into small piles, a job generations of her family have done since 1860.
Xuereb, alongside her husband and mother, is collecting this summer’s harvest, which is less than in previous years because of bad weather.
The family are part of a dwindling number of Maltese salt farmers continuing a tradition on the island of Gozo that dates back to Phoenician times.
“It’s very labour-intensive, it still goes the traditional way,” said 48-year-old Xuereb. “The only kind of machine we use is the motor pump for the irrigation system.”
After sweeping up the salt with brooms, the family carry it in buckets to create a bigger pile nearby, covering it to dry out. Days later, the salt is bagged and taken to a warehouse to be packeted. Its ingredients are listed as “sea, sun, wind”.
Forming a checkerboard pattern, the Xwejni Salt Pans stretch for several kilometres on Gozo’s rugged northern coast but most old ones are no longer in production. Xuereb’s family operates a small patch.
“We have got about 350 small pans from where we extract the salt and we have 12 big pools from where we get the water,” she said. “First we pump the sea water... directly into the big pools and then we let the water concentrate there.”
In the days when people bought large quantities of salt to preserve food, the practice was a key source of income. But the number of salt farmers has declined as younger generations seek better pay and less laborious work elsewhere, Xuereb said.
Climate change has also had an effect on production.
In a good season, the family business harvests about 20 tonnes of salt. This summer they managed less than half that.
“It’s been very challenging due to bad weather, high winds and the sea came up many times,” Xuereb said. “High humidity means the rock remains cold so it’s very difficult to dry.”
Xuereb’s father Leli Cini sells the salt from a road stall to tourists, the family’s main customers.
“The market has changed quite a lot. Nowadays we have a good demand from tourists... Everyone is opting for natural and organic food,” she said.
“(Salt harvesting) has been running in the family for many years... I’m the fifth generation. There might be (a sixth generation)... I hope it won’t get lost.”
Reporting By Darrin Zammit Lupi; Writing by Marie-Louise Gumuchian; Editing by Gareth Jones