If you should choose to visit the small islands of Malta and Gozo, which I highly suggest you do, there are plenty of scenic and historic sites to see, from fortresses and museums to palaces to gardens. But it’s great to know a little bit about their history and culture, including the fact that salt and flour once fueled the economy of Malta and Gozo. Visit a salt pan or take a tour of one of the few remaining windmills and you’ll be rewarded with a glimpse into a Maltese way of life that existed hundreds of years ago.
Malta’s Salt & Flour Currency
It’s hard to believe that hundreds of years ago, a keg of salt or wheat germ was worth more than gold. In the past Malta and Gozo never had large manufacturing industries or mineral resources such as coal and oil. Its only foreign trading items were products produced and cultivated by nature, including olives, olive oil, wheat to produce flour and natural salt. Before the exchange of stone and metal currency, these were very essential elements in the human exchange and barter of goods.
Thanks to good weather, sunshine, wind and a marine saturated environment, Maltese counted on flour and salt for their livings and their livelihoods, while it was also used to manufacture bread and other food throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East.
More Windmills Per Square Kilometre
It is believed that Malta has the highest density of windmills in the world, approximately one windmill for each 9 km2 (3.5 square miles), which makes it higher than the Netherlands, a country famous for its windmills. The great majority were built and used during the 17th century when the then reigning Knights of Malta assured wheat grain was ground into flour, which provided bread and pasta for the population.
At one point there were 56 mills in Malta and a further 21 in Gozo, and almost all were grain mills, either wind-powered or by mules and donkeys that turned the sails that ground the wheat germ.
Unfortunately, over the years these windmills declined, were demolished, or were converted into houses. However, you can transport yourself right back Malta’s bread making days by taking a guided tour at Ta’Kola Windmill.
This 200-year-old building is one of the few surviving windmills on the Maltese Islands. Dating from the Knights’ period, it’s a living testimony to a historic way of life in the Maltese Islands.
Salt Pans of Malta
“Sapore di sale, sapore di mare” is a much loved song by popular Italian singer Gino Paoli. Eeleased in 1963, it has remained popular ever since in the Maltese Islands. It relates to summer-autumn days when one can inhale the aroma of salt and sea under sometimes grilling temperatures – “the aromatic perfume of salt, the aromatic perfume of sea” – and thus a time for love.
As a Mediterranean hub, Malta played an essential trading port of call before Phoenician times and has a long history in the creation, cultivation and harvesting of salt. Take a drive around and you’ll see our small islands pock-marked by caves and soft limestone rocks that could easily be hewn and cut.
For hundreds of years the economy, as it was then, or more simply the livelihoods of many thousands, depended on incoming/outgoing vessels filling up with salt, wheat germ, olives and olive oil. The Phoenicians exchanged it for other goods such as dyes while other military invaders looted it.
Around the coasts of Malta and Gozo there are 40 different locations where salt pans were hewn into rocks. The production process was a family affair, with the harvesting techniques being handed down from generation to generation. Unfortunately, nowadays few are active.
Their creation was a simple enough process—shallow, square-shaped pans were hewn into soft rock in flat areas near the sea. The pans created shallow pools and when the sea swelled (there are virtually negligible tides in the central Mediterranean region) the square pools filled with sea water, and was trapped inside. Malta’s blazing overhead sun did the water and left behind the salt residue, which would then be harvested by back-breaking work. The salt had to be swept into piles, cleared of foreign particles such as bits of rock, sea weeds, seashells and other elements, and left to dry before being packed and sold.
The checkerboard pans spread around the islands are mainly isolated and sometimes difficult to access—good deterrent for summer crowds that could contribute to pollution and disturb the water dehydrating in the pans.
Viewing Salt Pans
The largest pans are located in Marsalforn in Gozo, known as the Xwejni Salt Pans. Situated just outside Xwejni Bay, these are one of the island’s highlights and give visitors an insight into the age-old tradition. Tours are operated and students and groups are welcome to explore and learn. You can also purchase some of their salt online.
The very active pans along the Salina coastline in the north-eastern part of Malta, facing the village of St Paul’s Bay, are Government controlled, and originate from the time of the Knights of Malta back in the 15th and 16th centuries. They have recently been totally refurbished. A breakwater stretches along Salina Bay and the sea flows into large pans and is gradually re-channeled into smaller pans and canals. It is estimated these pans still produce over 4,000 tons of coarse salt over two harvests.
If you’re a bird lover, the salt pans at Salina regularly attract a number of gull species, sometimes as many as 2,000 a day, including black-headed, Mediterranean, and Audouin. You can spot them by visiting the Salina Nature Park.
The philosopher Pythagoras once wrote, ‘Salt is born of the purest parents: the sun and the sea’ and there is nowhere this is more apparent than in Malta.
BeSeeingYou: Malta and Gozo
Good To Know: You can call ahead to arrange guided tours at some salt pans and windmills
WOW! Factor: A visit is a peek into human ingenuity and a Maltese way of life
TIP: Winter is the best time to visit for its mild temperatures, fewer crowds and abundant sunshine
Author bio: Albert Fenech