Words Maeve O’Meara
Published Summer 11/12
When asked for a phrase that sums up his country’s attitude to food, my Maltese friend Ted Delia came up with this gem: Kul u tpaxxa ghax minn hawn ghal gol kaxxa. – eat and be merry ‘cause from here it is straight to the box!
It is just what you’d expect from someone born on the small rocky islands in the middle of the Mediterranean between Sicily and North Africa, a country that’s been invaded by countless nationalities, a place not suitable for grazing or cultivation and yet able to produce some beautiful rustic recipes that are full of flavour and freshness. Who wouldn’t want to celebrate the sheer joy of being alive?
If there’s one trait that defines the Maltese, it’s tenacity. The islands of Malta, Gozo and Comino were settled by the Phoenicians in 5000 BC, and later by the Greeks, then in more modern times occupied by Arab invaders, then Roman, Norman, Sicilian, Spanish, French and English. It’s now a free country with many Maltese scattered throughout the world. Like many parts of the Mediterranean, there was an exodus around World War II due to extremely harsh economic times.
Much of the food is based on what is available, and is easy to grow and even what grows wild – capers grow by the side of the road and are used in many dishes, from the lovely open sandwich hobz biz-zeit to many great seafood dishes. This is truly peasant cuisine, using vegetables in season, home-made cheeses and some of the cheaper cuts of meat. These are cooked slowly with fresh tomatoes, parsley and garlic to create tender stews with lots of flavour.
One of the famous meat dishes is bragioli or beef olives, a rolled stuffed piece of meat cooked slowly. To make the meal go further, a first course of pasta is served with the tomato sauce the bragioli cooks in, then as main course, the meat itself.
Rabbit is also extremely popular and many Maltese families raise their own. The signature dish of Malta is undoubtedly stuffat tal fenek – rabbit stew, with each town and village claiming to make the best version.
Perhaps the most famous culinary export from Malta is the golden flaky pastizzi. It’s the meat pie of Malta, filled with mushy peas or ricotta and baked to golden, crunchy and deeply satisfying. Sydney-based pastizzi makers Charlie and Joe Hili reckon they make it better in Australia than it is done back home, but they’re biased. A good pastizzi is made with the best puff-style pastry, rolled by hand and filled with basic comfort food fillings, no tomato sauce required.
Some of the simplest food is the result of people having to make do with what they had. Widow’s soup or Soppa ta l-Armla is made up of whatever vegetables are in season and, if available, an egg or gbejniet (Maltese cheeselets) served with it. This was a dish served by many religious orders to families who had fallen on extreme hardship, a soup that is perfect in its simplicity.
Naturally, fish and seafood are a large part of the diet and one of the beloved dishes is a fish pie: Torta tal-Lampuk. Anchovies are plentiful and star on top of the open sandwich hobs biz-zeit – a big crusty round of bread spread with kunserva (tomato paste) then piled with goodies including capers, tuna and a few gherkins.
Chef Shane Delia (Ted’s son) says much of the food is a melting pot of all the people who have ‘visited’ Malta over centuries, pointing out the delicious alijota, a seafood soup, is remarkably similar to the classic French bouillabaisse. “But we’ve given it our own twist with handfuls of marjoram, fresh mint and garlic – ours is better,” he adds with classic Maltese bravado.
Shane has fond memories of his grandmother’s Stufat tal quarnit (octopus and walnut stew), which she would braise slowly with raisins and chickpeas; one of those recipes that touches your soul.
When it comes to sweets, there is a mixture of influences. Arabic culinary traditions are evident in qaq tal-ghase – a sweet biscuit served in a ring shape stuffed with dates and honey; mqaret are sweet date-filled pastries. Italian invaders are responsible for kannoli – pastry tubes fried then stuffed with ricotta, while some sweets show the English influence – with a twist – a classic bread and butter pudding becomes puddina – a more solid version packed with chocolate and dried fruit, which is sliced into squares and is terrific with a cup of tea.
One favourite Maltese sweet recipe is a heavenly chocolate dessert that’s enjoyed in Malta at Christmas and uses roasted chestnuts mixed with blood oranges and chocolate, a mixture that shows off the country’s ingenuity with ingredients.
With the sentiment that one should eat because tomorrow you may die, Maltese families get together every Sunday (just as the Italians do) to feast and share stories. Meals are large and served communally – the famous baked pasta pie timpana generally feeds a small army of people.
These Maltese feasts are a great delight, people brought together with food and wine. One final saying sums it up: Hu pjacir hu gawdi, ghaliex F’din id-dinja xejn ma huwa taghna – enjoy yourself, for there is nothing in the world we can call our own.