There’s an old Sicilian folk tale that goes something like this. A king had three daughters. One day, he took each of them aside and told them that, if they truly loved their father, then they would give him something extra-specially valuable for his birthday. When the day finally came around, he opened the gift from his first daughter and found beautiful gold jewellery. The second daughter gave him diamonds and pearls. The third daughter, however, gave him a sack of salt. Not surprisingly, the king wasn’t too pleased with this ‘common’ gift and banished his youngest daughter to the dungeons. The girl had friends, though, and the palace cooks were persuaded to prepare all the king’s meals without adding any salt. After just one week of eating such tasteless offerings (the Italians would call the food ‘insipido’), he forgave his daughter, released her from her cell, and agreed that salt is, indeed, just as precious as gold or diamonds.
Perhaps the story has a basis in fact, too. For on the west coast of Sicily is one of Italy’s last remaining salt ‘factories’. Experts suggest that salt-production, centred around the shallow lagoons that lie between Marsala and Trapani, has been practised since as far back as the 14th century. There, the presence of a shallow lagoon and the absence of any significant tides (the sea level in the Mediterranean rises and falls by just a few centimetres each day) has allowed the Sicilians to build and maintain a series of pools known as saline.
The salt-making process begins by filling the outermost saline with fresh sea-water. Then, the constant coastal breeze and the hot Sicilian sun provide the ‘energy’ required to drive off the water. As the water evaporates, the remaining brine solution becomes more and more concentrated. Every few days during the harvesting season (which runs from June to September), the increasingly salty water is pumped into another salina nearer to the land. For centuries, environmentally-friendly windmills have been used to pump the salt water from one pool to the next and many of these windmills are still standing.
Eventually, the briny water gets so concentrated that a crust of salt crystals begins to form on the surface.
Further drying, at times aided and abetted by the strong scirocco wind that blows straight from the Sahara Desert and blasts southern Italy with the force of a hair-dryer on its hottest setting, soon removes the last of the water and the salt is then ready for harvesting.
The collection process itself is well worth watching, and is easily visible from the minor road that runs along the edge of the saline. A group of the most sun-tanned, sinewy and weather-beaten Sicilians that you’ll ever see work for hours through the heat of the day. (In fact, the saline once provided a major source of employment for the locals).
First, the salt crystals are piled into heaps about a metre high. This not only helps the salt dry more thoroughly, but also makes it easier for the workers to load it into their wheelbarrows. Then, once the salt is completely dry, it is shovelled into the barrows which are pushed to the base of an elevator. By means of a conveyor-belt, this machine lifts the crystals of salt and spits them onto the top of a heap. With up to ten men working each salina, the wheelbarrow traffic flows non-stop. Eventually, huge piles of salt, up to three metres high, ten metres long, and looking rather like glistening white haystacks, or ‘salt dunes’, are built up. To protect the finished stacks from any rain that may fall, a makeshift roof of loose terracotta tiles is then laid over them.
It is estimated that ten hectares of working saline (equivalent to the area covered by about 20 football pitches) can produce around 1,000 tons of salt a year. That’s a lot of shovelling – and an awful lot of salt.
Imagine working all day under the heat of the sun, in the driest, saltiest environment you can think of - and then think of finishing the day’s work, retiring to a shady bar, and sinking that first long, cool drink…
Fortunately, visitors can get a flavour of the saline without breaking sweat. And the juxtaposition of the white ‘salt-dunes’ and their orange tile roofs contrasting with the blue sky is a sight to behold. The saline themselves add colours to the scene, too, changing hue as the brine they contain gets more and more concentrated. Some pools reflect the azure blue of the Sicilian sky, while others are tinted with shades of pink, purple, dark blue and, of course, white. Seen at sunset from the nearby hill-top town of Erice, the view of this multi-coloured checkerboard is both inspiring and enchanting.
Some of the windmills have been restored. At the town of Nubia, a ‘Museum of Salt’ has even been set up inside one of them. As well as explaining the salt-making process, it contains examples of the traditional baskets, shovels and wheelbarrows used by the workers. The whole area, in fact, resembles a kind of working ‘industrial museum’. Near Mozia (spelled Mothia on some maps) there’s also the opportunity to visit a working salt pan.
It’s not just salt that brings more and more visitors every year to the ‘Via del Sale’. The lagoons in which the saline have been constructed also form part of a nature reserve which is home to a wide variety of wading and other birds – especially during the spring and autumn migrations. But it is filled with life even in the summer and, as if reflecting the bright blue sky and terracotta tiles, turquoise and gold kingfishers regularly zoom past.
Out in the lagoon is Mozia itself, a low-lying island accessible by a ten-minute boat ride. On it is another museum, this one dedicated to the Phoenicians who inhabited the area between the 6th and 5th centuries BC.
Nobody knows if the Phoenicians also harvested sea-salt from the shallow lagoon surrounding their island. But nobody would be surprised if they did – and that it was a Phoenician king or nobleman that, having initially rejected his daughter’s gift, soon realized the true value of salt – a commodity that is just as precious today as it has always been.
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