The Salt Man of Malta – a family business
Emmanuel Cini is known as the “Salt Man of Malta.” He is the fourth generation of the Cini family to have worked with sea salt harvesting and, like his predecessors, he has recently passed the running of the family business on to the next generation, in this case his daughter, Josephine Xuereb.
Xuereb is 47 years old. She grew up on the rugged cliffs of Marsalforn Bay and used to look for pebbles and catch crabs when her parents were harvesting salt. She now gets help from her husband and children with the salt harvesting.
“This is farming to me,” she says. “It’s a lot of hard, intense work for little money. It’s hard to make a living in a trade that depends completely on nature, but it gives me satisfaction to embrace nature and enjoy time with my loved ones. I also meet lots of people from all over the world that come here for our salt.”
Xuereb had previously studied and worked in a bank, and then stayed at home to raise her children. “I could not bear seeing my dad so sad that no one was stepping up to follow in his footsteps with the salt business,” she says.
“I am famous,” says her father, with a smile, showing me framed articles from all over the world on the walls of his shop, which he calls a museum. The front is more like a hole-in-the-wall establishment, but out back, in a 300-year-old limestone cave, old equipment and bags of salt are stored. And there is a sunbed covered with a blanket in a corner so that Cini can take a rest.
He is 75 now, and not as fit as he used to be. But talking about the salt business still makes his eyes sparkle and he is eager to show how the old-style yoke is used to carry the heavy buckets of salt.
Five years ago, he made the cave bigger and even got some battery-driven lights and a gas hob to make coffee.
“I want to have a waiting room,” he says, sitting down on a wobbly, worn stool in the cave. “I want to fix it all but I don’t do anything.”
The salt season starts in May and ends in August when the days get shorter. The workday starts before sunrise to avoid the heat. At around five in the morning, the family gets their equipment and start to sweep the saltpans with brooms to gather piles of salt that are left to dry in the sun.
“The toughest part is when I set my foot on the first pan and I look up and say to myself ‘oh mama mia, how many more saltpans do I have to sweep?’” says Xuereb, looking out over her 362 pans. “But then when I see the big mountain of salt that we are covering to avoid the dust, I think about how beautiful this is and how lucky I am.”
Every week during the high season, the family carries three tons of salt from their pans home for storage and packing. They sell salt from their own shop, but also directly to hotels and stores.
“Customers used to come here on a donkey. Today they come by taxi,” Cini says. The times are changing in others ways too. Big hotels and fancy restaurants are being built around the corner in Marsalforn Bay. And while the saltpans were recently still filled by hand using buckets of seawater, a motor now pumps up the seawater.
But Cini still takes pride in his craft. “I never lowered my prices to get business like the others. But my white gold is whiter than theirs, and everyone wants my salt,” he says proudly. “I make the whitest salt. It is a culinary craft trade.”
His daughter adds, “No one works like us. To us, quality is the most important thing. Whatever you do, you need to have passion, dedication and stamina.”
Text: Sofia Zetterman
Published: January 16, 2017