Memories from Malta: When salt and flour were worth more than their weight in gold in Kent and Sussex – but also for Malta’s economy!

By Albert Fenech

 Windmills in Amsterdam – wind grinders just as prolific in Malta

 Hard to believe that many, many hundreds of years ago a keg of salt was worth more than its weight in gold! The same could be said for a keg of wheat germ.

All this came to mind after reading the excellent article written by Elizabeth Wright in Unknown Kent And Sussex; McDougall’s Flour Mill, East Sussex.

Gold had its own attractions, as well as precious stones, to ensure luxury and a good living – but what was the use of that when one could not keep body and soul together with essential foodstuffs?

Reading Elizabeth’s article brought back memories of our own flour-grinding history in Malta and Gozo. Almost on a parallel in their proliferation in the UK, Malta also erupted into a wealth of corn-grinding establishments with equipment to produce flour to feed the local population but also for national economic purposes as a highly-valued export product. 

Elizabeth wrote that just north of the town of Hailsham in East Sussex, at Chillenden, on the A271 through Upper Horsebridge and on the banks of the River Cuckmere, there was once a fine water-driven flour mill (above). 

Corn grinding mills had existed in the area before the 16th Century and became prolific throughout the UK, some wind-driven and others water-driven and some even dated back to the 12th Century. 

A number of flour grinding mills existed throughout Kent and Sussex but over the years fell out of use and were either demolished or renovated as houses or other establishments.

More British windmills

Salt was another essential natural product and along water level sea coasts around Britain, including Kent and Sussex geological horizons were formed by evaporating seawater.

Water evaporation produced ‘evaporites’ of sodium chloride and formed thick beds of hydrated calcium sulphate – and hence, salt. Human ingenuity quickly figured that pans etched in low-lying sea rocks – in Britain as much as possible just slightly above tide levels would trap the water and eventually become salt.

These sprang up along the east coast including Kent and Sussex and provided salt much needed by the human body (in normal circumstances!) 

So, searching for a holiday destination this year? Then I suggest the Malta Archipelago for blue Mediterranean sea and sparking sunshine and a wealth of history that makes them per square metre the most historic and cultural territories in the world. 

If you should choose the small islands of Malta and Gozo it’s great to know their history and culture and what may be likely to capture your interest – and what is available.

St Michael’s Bastion windmill in Malta, sadly demolished in the late 1800s

In the past Malta and Gozo never had large manufacturing industries and neither mineral resources such as coal and oil. The only foreign trading items as elements were products produced by nature and cultivated and nurtured. These included olives, olive oil, wheat to produce flour and natural salt. 

Before the exchange of stone and metal currency as purchase requisites back in the origins of time these were very essential elements in the human exchange and barter of goods. Flour and salt used to manufacture bread throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East and a variety of other foodstuffs were basic essentials to maintain life. 

Using basic free elements such as good weather, sunshine, local products, wind and a marine saturated environment, the inhabitants had to combine these for their living and their livelihood. 

Malta had the highest density of windmills in the world, having had approximately a windmill for each 9 km2 (3.5 sq mi), which is higher than the Netherlands which is famous for its windmills – according to Wikipedia.

At one point there were 56 mills in Malta and a further 21 in Gozo, either wind-powered or with strapped mules and donkeys walking in blindfolded circulation to power the grinding and the sails instead of wind.

The great majority were built and used in the 17th Century when the then reigning Knights of Malta appreciated the provision of wheat grain to be ground into flour to provide bread and pasta for the population. 

There was also recognition that not only wheat grain was a high export item, but also prepared grounded flour. 

Unfortunately, over the years these declined and many were demolished or were converted into houses.

The Xaghra Windmill in Gozo recently renovated

As a Mediterranean hub at the centre of the Middle Sea (Mediterranean literally means the sea in the middle of land) Malta played an essential trading port of call way back before Phoenician times and thus Malta has a very long history in the creation, cultivation and harvesting of salt, small islands surrounded by the blue Mediterranean Sea, pock-marked by caves and soft limestone rocks that could easily be hewn and cut.

The Xarolla Windmill in Zurrieq, Malta, also recently restored and renovated to working order

For hundreds of years the economy, as it was then, or more simply the livelihoods of many thousands, depended on incoming/outgoing vessels filling up with salt, wheat germ, olives and olive oil. The Phoenicians being traders exchanged it for other goods such as dyes; other military invaders looted it. 

“Sapore di sale, sapore di mare” is a much loved Italian song by popular Italian singer Gino Paoli released in 1963 and which has remained popular ever since in the Maltese Islands. It relates summer-autumn days when one breathes the aroma of salt and sea under sometimes grilling temperatures – “the aromatic perfume of salt, the aromatic perfume of sea” – and thus a time for love. 

Around the coasts of Malta and Gozo there are 40 different locations where salt pans had been hewn into rocks although nowadays few are active. The production process in each locality was a family affair, the harvesting techniques being handed down from generation to generation.

Salt pans at Marsalforn in Gozo

Their creation was a simple enough process; shallow, square-shaped pans being hewn into rock areas that were flat and against which the sea lapped continually. The pans created shallow pools and when the sea swelled (there are virtually negligible tides in the central Mediterranean region) the square pools filled with sea water which was trapped there. 

The blazing overhead sun did the rest, dehydrating the water and leaving behind the salt residue which would then be harvested by back-breaking work. The salt had to be swept into piles, cleared of foreign particles such as bits of rock, sea weeds, sea shells and other elements, and left to dry before being packed and sold.

Back-breaking work and the salt crystals forming

Some still exist and are used today. The largest pans are located in Marsalforn in Gozo, known as the Xwejni Salt Pans and on the tip of the Delimara Peninsula in the south of Malta but with the largest, most commercial and still very active pans along the Salina Coastline in the north-eastern part of Malta facing the then isolated village of St Paul’s Bay.

The final step before packaging

It is estimated these existing pans still produce over 4,000 tons of coarse salt over two harvests. 

Visit and view these sites and locations and go back hundreds of years enhanced by environmental views, fascination and appreciating the works of past humanity. All are worth visiting. 

By Albert Fenech





  • Albert Fenech

    Albert Fenech was born in Malta in 1946. His family moved to England in 1954 where he spent boyhood and youth before in 1965 returning to Malta. He spent eight years as a journalist with “The Times of Malta” before taking a career in HR Management Administration with a leading international construction company in Libya, later with Malta Insurance Brokers, and finally STMicroelectronics Malta, employing 3,000 employees, Malta’s leading industrial manufacturer. Throughout he actively pursued international freelance journalism/ broadcasting for various media outlets covering social issues, current affairs, sports and travel. He has written in a number of publications both in Malta and overseas, as well as publishing two e-books. For the last eight years he had been writing a “Malta Diary” with pictures for Lyn Funnel’s international travel magazine.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *