The chalky limestone contrasts beautifully with the deep blue Mediterranean Sea and azure sky, but it isn’t all tranquility - Żonqor is a place open to the elements. When the wind picks up, waves reach mammoth proportions – crashing against the coastline and battering anything within reach. This is where 83-year-old Żaren Darmanin maintains salt pans, hand-carved into the rock centuries ago. It’s in the last decade, though, that the Darmanins have dipped their toes into showcasing their craft as part of a wider drive to establish rural tourism in Malta.
Eco-tourism and other alternatives to mainstream leisure tourism have surfaced – and mostly disappeared – in Malta over the years. But, the rural tourism designed by the Merill Rural Network seems to be here to stay. Merill – named after Malta’s national bird, the blue rock thrush – brings together farmers, breeders and artisans from across the Maltese islands to create awareness about local agriculture and traditions.
Christian Borg, co-Founder and Network Manager of Merill is proud of the leaps made by the company, but knows it is no easy task: “Merill has gone from strength to strength, but we’re swimming against the current. It’s challenging, but we’ve been stubborn enough to persist.” Without flexibility, we’ll perish; so, we’re an evolving enterprise with a core mission: to create alternative touristic experiences that enhance environmental conservation and empower rural communities.”
Merill and the Darmanins partnered up in 2012, and their sea salt tour has become a favourite among visitors: “We’ve created an interactive, intimate experience that draws people into the tradition’s narrative so that they can grasp the value behind what we’re doing. This is why the rural producers themselves have to be involved,” explains Borg. At 83 years old, Darmanin doesn’t host tours himself, but his son, Mario, and his granddaughter, Diana, often show visitors the ways of Maltese sea-salt production.
Darmanin runs a small-scale, hands-on venture at the salt pans in Żonqor: “I’ve been doing this since I was 16 years old, but the family tradition goes back some 200 years. I inherited a ground rent receipt book from my grandmother, which shows that we’ve been paying rent here since at least 1821 – when it cost just five cents every other month!”
It is said that the salt pans themselves date back to Roman times, which is certainly plausible. The salt basins in Malta and Gozo were originally started by the Phoenicians and later renovated by the Romans. And, little has changed in the way of production. The practice stills runs May - September, and it still relies upon the sun, sea, stone and hours of physical labour starting at dawn.
Describing the typical process, Darmanin explains: “First, we lift water from the sea and pour it into a big rock basin and then, we separate out the water into smaller and shallower salt pans.” The process continues like this for a few weeks before the magic happens: “In the smallest pans, the water evaporates quickly, and it becomes easier and quicker to harvest salt. After about a week, we start seeing salt crystals. We need to be patient because it takes weeks for the water to evaporate. But, the longer the water sits, the better it is for the salt.”
The salt crystals are swept and gathered into heaps so that excess water can drain away. It is then stored in a stone shed to shelter it from the weather as the wind and rain are detrimental when harvesting.
“Once the salt is in its final heap, we etch a cross on top of it,” explains Darmanin. “My grandmother used to do this, and I’ve continued the tradition.” This Christian custom dates back to a time before refrigeration, when using salt was the only food preservation method. Nowadays, producers still mark the salt with a cross to bless and protect it. The fleur de sel is then sold to visitors and other rural producers for use in olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes and other local products.
Despite all of this heard work, salt doesn’t sell for very much, and people can’t rely on it for income. Looking ahead, the Darmanins remain exceedingly positive and will continue the tradition for as long as people want to buy their salt or experience its production. Regardless of what the future holds, the Darmanin name will forever be synonymous with the iconic salt pans at Żonqor Point.