“This morning we come about half past five, you know. Not much today. The waves come in and make salt. We start from May up till September and always depends on the weather. The big one there; 20% salt, better than nothing. It takes 5 days, 7 days, but it always depends on the weather, the wind and the water. This is my land. It belong in our relations, 170 years. That’s my part, from that part to the edge of somebody else’s. But once it was one.” Emmanuel Cini, Salter. Żebbuġ, Gozo, 30 August 2014.
Salt-pans are reputed to have been used here since Roman times. Salt was a valuable commodity in earlier times; Roman soldiers were sometimes paid with salt – this is the origin of the English word “salary”. The Northern Coast of Gozo proved very suitable for this purpose because it had extensive flat stretches of coastal limestone into which basins and channels could be cut by hand. The hot summer climate with strong drying winds was also an important factor. The basic production process is simple; in early summer seawater is fed into a series of shallow basins through a system of hand-dug channels. After concentration and evaporation by wind and sun during the hot summer months, the white sea-salt can be collected and bagged.
Many churches in Malta and Gozo have works of art made from this onyx but iż-Żebbuġ church is by far the most spectacular. It is covered with this semi-precious stone. The high altar, the choir, and the baptistery are all sculpted out of this onyx.
Iż-Żebbuġ became an independent parish in 1688 and the building of the present church (without the onyx) started in 1690. The church, dedicated to Santa Marija (St Mary) the Assumption, was consecrated in 1726. The Cathedral apart, it is the oldest parish church to be consecrated in Gozo.
Worthy of special mention is the altarpiece of the Immaculate Conception in a chapel in the left transept, known by the locals as tal-Virtut (of the miracles). Local folklore has it that the radiant face of the Virgin turns yellowish and pale before an impending natural catastrophe. It is also said that one day, when some corsairs dared to devastate the countryside as far as the village, a lady that resembled the image in the altarpiece appeared on the spot hurling stones to repel the enemy.