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Making a living in salt

Video: Jason Borg

From dawn till dusk you can always spot the silhouette of Nazzereno Darmanin, 76, against the skyline, tending to his salt pans in the south of Malta.

For as long as God gives me the strength I’ll keep on doing this

He has been harvesting sea salt, every summer, for more than 50 years – perhaps more if you add up that as a baby, his mother used to bundle him up and take him with her to the pans.

Mr Darmanin, tanned and weather-beaten, is now one of a mere handful of sea salt harvesters left in Malta.

“My family has owned these salt pans for more than 200 years,” he said. Old documentation traces back these saltpans to 1820, but Mr Darmanin, believes that they are older than that. To this day he still pays an annual emphyteusis (ċens) equivalent to the cost of a Catholic mass.

His ancestors never missed a beat in harvesting salt ever summer from June till the first rain in September, save for four years during the World War II. “The whole coast of Malta was fenced off due to army security,” he said.

Each of the man-made pans, which used to be shaped by means of a pick-axe, has its own nickname: ‘Tat-Toqba’, ‘Taċ-Ċaghqa’, ‘Il-Ġdida’.

‘Il-Ġdida’ , which means ‘new’ in Maltese is probably something like a century old, but it would have been the last one to be added, said Mr Darmanin, hence the name.

The larger pans are not used for salt making, but are used as large pools – where the water is allowed to saturate before it is then poured into the smaller ones.

Up till 50 years ago this was a manually process using zinc buckets. It was a task which used to take eight hours every day from 6am to 2pm. “These days we use a pump, so it’s quicker,” he said.During the day however he has to ‘sweep’ the salt. The Maltese term for it is ‘tdgedzu’ which literally means ‘piling it up’.

The water in the small pans evaporates after a week leaving behind about two kilograms of salt. This is left to dry for about three days and then, helped by his son Mario, he packs it in sacks.

Mr Darmanin explained that the salt crystals harvested from pans in the north of Malta would be bigger and more flake-like, because they are deeper. “The water takes longer to dry up and the salt tastes more bitter than ours.”

He guards the salt pans till nightfall so as to make sure that no one walks over the pans, or holds barbeques next to them. Because the area is not closed off, it is not the first time that in the morning, he discovers someone would have pinched his salt during the night. In his younger days salt was a very prolific business. “There were no fridges back then and people used sea salt to preserve food,” he said.

His son Mario explained that people reduced their salt intake due to health promotion campaigns.

“However we have to keep in mind that we live in a sunny country and we need to replenish salt in our blood system especially people working outdoors.”

Sadly, sea salt which contains the natural iodine, magnesium, and calcium is no longer popular, with many opting for the less healthier mined table salt.

Mr Darmanin and his son now work hand-in-hand with an eco-tourism company, organising sea salt harvesting workshops every now and then so as to create awareness of the benefits of sea salt, the art of harvesting and the hardships behind it.

In the meantime, Mr Darmanin – or Żaren – as he is affectionately known, has no plans to quit.

“For as long as God gives me the strength I’ll keep on doing this.”

For more information on Żaren’s sea salt write to info@merillecotours.com.

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