28 January 2014
I’ve recently noticed a number of little gourmet shops popping up on street corners in Malta
. These shops are treasure troves of local and foreign delicacies
like locally produced salt, herbs, fruit preserves, jam, and even pretty Malta-themed homeware that verges on elegant as opposed to tacky.
Just last week I was browsing through a few shops, and a fine package of rock salt caught my eye. Placed on a shelf next to Maltese herbs and pepper, stood little packets or jars full of salt, either plain or infused with an aromatic herb. It seems that there is nothing that isn’t Maltese about this sea salt. It is collected, processed, and packaged by hand on the Maltese islands. Well, at least that’s what the knowledgeable shop owner told me.
My curiosity positively piqued, I did some research on local salt production and just how Maltese and Gozitan artisans are bottling the Mediterranean. It turns out that salt production is a tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation in Malta and Gozo. It’s only recently that several companies have begun marketing sea salt as a gourmet product.
The salt is firstly collected from salt pans along the coasts of Malta and Gozo. Salina Bay, near Bugibba, is the main production area of salt in Malta. At its peak of production, the Salina Bay salt pans would produce over 4,000 tons of coarse salt over two harvests. There are quite a few salt pan areas in Malta, albeit smaller than those in Salina Bay, namely those found in Marsascala, Żonqor Point, Delimara, Xgħajra, and Birżebbuġa. One interesting fact I discovered is Mellieħa, a Northern town in Malta, was named after the salt (melħ) produced in Għadira Bay in Mellieħa.
The formation process of the salt begins when sea water starts to fill crevices in the coastline. This sea water is left to settle for eight days before it is moved to smaller salt pans that are warmer in temperature and further away from the sea. At the beginning of the drying process the water takes on a reddish hue and salt crystals begin to form. In fact, if you head down to the coast really early in the morning, there’s a chance you can see locals collecting rock salt from the 350-year-old salt pans in Marsalforn, Gozo. There are several salt pans along the Gozitan coast, namely in Qala, Dwejra, and Xlendi.
As per family tradition, once the rock salt has been processed it is packed up and taken to a small warehouse or garage, and then packaged by hand before it is distributed to supermarkets, souvenir shops, and gourmet food shops.