Savoring Malta

By Claudia M. Caruana

Published on September 6, 2007

Like her mother, aunts, and grandmothers before her, Marija Cassar goes straight to the kitchen every Sunday morning after Mass and begins preparing her family's afternoon dinner. That doesn't mean she cooks it, though. Instead, she assembles it and gets it ready to cook—on this particular spring day, it's an uncooked pork roast, neatly surrounded by sliced raw potatoes, in an aluminum roasting pan—and then places a tea cloth over it, leaves her apartment, and hurries along the dusty streets of Qormi, on the island of Malta, to an address on Triq St. Katerina, or St. Catherine Street.

There, she steps through a hinged garage door indistinguishable from the others on the block. Behind this door is Lucy Debono's bakery—not some bright shop with shelves full of cookies and cakes, but a windowless room dominated by a wood-burning brick oven. Inside the bakery, Cassar joins a handful of other women who have brought their family dinners to be cooked, all of them clutching heavy covered pans and casserole dishes containing not just roasts like hers, but such Maltese soul food as timpana (a dense and filling dish of macaroni baked with tomatoes and ground meat enclosed in pastry) or ross fil-forn (rice baked with meat sauce).

Most bakeries in Malta, besides producing their own savory pastries and the Maltese bread called ħobża—a round, crisp sourdough loaf with an indented middle—also do communal baking. The service costs about a dollar per dish.

This tradition goes back centuries, born of a time when it was impractical (and unsafe) to have ovens large enough for baking in tight living quarters. Today, many Maltese homes have modern kitchens, but communal baking lives on in some small villages—not just because it's convenient, and because the special flavor of food cooked in wood-burning ovens is appreciated here, but also because it's a chance to meet and chat with friends and neighbors. Cooking can still be a social affair in Malta.

Malta is a tiny island nation in the central Mediterranean, about 60 miles south of Sicily and 220 miles north of Libya. Its total land area, stretched over a string of five islands and islets—the largest of them also called Malta—is only twice the size of Washington, D.C. The country was first settled around 4000 B.C., possibly from what is now Sicily, to which the archipelago may once have been connected by a land bridge. Its strategic location and its many natural harbors made it attractive to almost everyone who passed by it, and subsequent visitors to the islands (both welcome and unwelcome) included the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Turks, Sicilians, French, and finally the British—who controlled Malta from 1814 until they granted it independence in 1964.

I have come to Malta myself because I came from here—or at least my family did. My father and both sets of my grandparents emigrated from Malta to the United States not long after World War I, and brought their food traditions with them.

My father became a chef, and worked in Italian restaurants around New York City. He cooked at home as well, but so, too, did my grandmothers. I remember vividly those mornings in the 1950s when I used to sit at the kitchen table in my Nanna Tona's house in Astoria, Queens, watching her work miracles with pastry dough. I'd marvel at her nimble hands at the counter rolling out dough for what seemed like hours. It was of no concern to me then that this was tedious work; all I could think about were the results: the pastizzi—hand-size, flaky dough pockets stuffed with ricotta cheese, peas, chopped beef, and other fillings, alone or in combination—that we'd all snack on every Sunday night, when my aunts, uncles, great-aunts and great-uncles, cousins, and other relatives, would invariably get together.

My other grandmother, Nanna Glaudina, made qassata instead of pastizzi. These were also dough pockets, filled with ricotta, but the dough wasn't flaky; it was more like a pot-pie crust. These were good, too.

The qassata was only part of the food at Nanna Glaudina's on Sundays, however. My parents, my brother John, and I would arrive soon after Mass, just in time to help make the ross fil-forn or the timpana. If a relative had been to Malta recently, chances were good that we would also have small, dried rounds of the Maltese sheep's-milk cheese called ġbejniet—often spiked with coarse black pepper. (There is also fresh ġbejniet.) My grandmother stored these in big Hellmann's mayonnaise jars in the cupboard. Sometimes she'd grate them onto various dishes as seasoning; other times, we'd nibble on them just as they were.

If we visited Nanna Glaudina during the week, she was likely to prepare froġa tal-għaġin, cold spaghetti mixed with eggs and sometimes bits of ham, with a hint of ground cumin added, then deep-fried in olive oil until it was browned and very crunchy on both sides. This we'd top with mounds of freshly grated parmesan cheese. And there was rarely a summer day at home when we didn't snack on ħobż biż-żejt—crusty bread (Italian loaves took the place of the traditional Maltese kind) drenched in olive oil, smeared with a crushed tomato, and seasoned with ground black pepper, salt, and sometimes capers or anchovies. In a way, this seemed the most typically Maltese dish of all.

Malta has two official languages, English and Maltese. (Italian, French, German, and Arabic are also taught in the local schools). Maltese is a Semitic tongue, but with a wealth of words on loan from Italian and other European languages—a legacy of the many invasions to which Malta has been subjected. The Maltese word for God, Alla, recalls the Arabic Allah, for instance; a Maltese might say "grazzi" for the ravjul as an Italian might say "grazie" for the ravioli.

Like its language, Malta's culinary tradition reflects its checkered history. The result is a quirky cuisine, continually improvised, based almost entirely on local ingredients, and echoing the color, charm, and vitality of Malta itself.

The strongest influences are Sicilian and North African. One dish probably of Sicilian origin is beef olives—thin steaks stuffed with chopped meat and bread crumbs, then rolled, tied, and simmered in a wine or tomato sauce. From the Arabs, on the other hand, who ruled Malta from the late ninth century A.D. until the Norman invasion in 1090, come the fried date cakes known as imqaret and the preparation called kusksu—whose name may recall the semolina-based couscous of North Africa, but which is in fact a hearty springtime soup of fava beans and pasta. This dish is sometimes made in an unusual way: The whole fava pods are simmered in broth with onions, tomato puree, and the pasta. When the pods are cooked through, they're removed and shelled, and the beans are returned to the soup. Fresh cheese can be added at the time of serving.

Savoring the memory of the kind of Maltese food I'd grown up with, I'd always assumed that when I finally visited Malta myself, I'd find this kind of cooking simply everywhere. But when I went there for the first time, in the mid-1970s, I discovered, to my surprise, that there was almost nothing Maltese on local restaurant menus—with the exception of pastizzi, which were sold as snacks. Maltese families at the time rarely dined out. Those who did were often entertaining foreign business associates or friends, whom they assumed would prefer international fare. Fortunately, this self-effacing attitude has changed, and it is now possible to find at least a small number of restaurants in Malta where traditional cuisine is offered.

On my visit I found one of the best of these, Gesther Restaurant in Xagħra, a village on Gozo, Malta's second-largest island. Such homey favorites as timpana and ross fil-forn are proudly served, as is the old-fashioned Maltese Christmas dessert called qagħaq tal-għasel—which is treacle ring, a large wreath-shaped semolina pastry filled with a kind of thick molasses. (This is an acquired taste, but quite addictive once you get used to it.)

The inhabitants of any island quickly learn to work with what they have, and the Maltese are masters of ingenuity in this regard. Their food is a celebration of the fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices that can be cultivated or grow wild in the island's poor, arid soil—among them favas, peas, cauliflower, kohlrabi, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, eggplant, onions, garlic, olives, figs, prickly pears, almonds, and wild mint, thyme, dill, and capers.

Much of the country's produce is grown on small family-owned farms, hidden behind rubble walls, on the island of Gozo, more rural and less populous than Malta itself. (Legend holds that Gozo was the home of the mythical nymph Calypso, encountered by Ulysses.) Situated a few miles northwest of Malta itself across the Fliegu Channel, Gozo is often called the island of farmers and fishermen, since these have been the principal occupations of its residents for many centuries. Nestled between Gozo and Malta is the country's third-largest island, Comino, which measures only one mile square. It was apparently named for the spice cumin, which may or may not have grown wild there in earlier times. (The other two islets of Malta are the uninhabited Filfla and Cominotto.)

Although there are many small groceries and greengroceries in Malta, locals seem to prefer patronizing the vegetable vans, called tal-ħaxix, that park on the perilously narrow Maltese streets. Until a few years ago, both vegetable sellers and fishmongers would alert customers to their presence by clashing pans and yelling "Ħut!" (fish) or "Ħaxix!" (vegetables) at daybreak. (Pity the poor inhabitants who enjoyed sleeping late.) The Maltese also harvest their own fruits and herbs in the wild. Figs and three varieties of prickly pears can be found on trees and bushes along the roadsides, and gathering capers, which grow profusely in crevices and crannies in rural areas, is a popular family activity on Sundays.

Meat was once a rare treat for the Maltese, often limited to Sunday dinner—but today it's a more regular part of the local diet (though some of it, particularly beef, must be imported). Rabbit, called fenek in Maltese, is also popular. Raised in great quantity by individuals for their own families, fenek—whether grilled, fried, or stewed with wine and tomatoes—might well be called the national dish. There are even restaurants that specialize in rabbit. One of the most famous, on the Dingli Cliffs on the island of Malta, is Bobbyland—named in honor of a British flier once stationed on the site.

Eggs have always been an important source of protein in Malta. A raw one was traditionally added, for instance, to soppa ta' l-armla, or widow's soup, so named because it was made from inexpensive vegetables. (Today, a hard-cooked egg is often used instead; cooks are becoming health-conscious, even in Malta!)

Fish, found in abundance in Maltese waters, is very popular. The variety is greatest in the summer months, and includes sea bass, grouper, amberjack, white bream, swordfish, dentex, and dolphin-fish (called lampuka in Maltese). Fish is served grilled, in stews and soups, and even in savory pies. A typical sauce for fish might include tomatoes, garlic, capers, mint, and a dash of vinegar. Qarnita—octopus—is made into stews or cooked and served cold in salads. Lampuka, a close runner-up to rabbit as Malta's favorite food, is often turned into torta tal-lampuki, in which the fish is fried, deboned, mixed with onions, cauliflower, spinach, tomatoes, olives, and raisins, and baked in a pastry shell. It is not unusual for Maltese living overseas to time their visits home to coincide with lampuka season, which runs approximately from late August through November.

Beekeeping in Malta goes back centuries. The Romans even called the archipelago Melita, from the Latin mel, meaning honey. (Melita is sometimes still used as a girl's name here.) In 1624, Johann Friedrich Breithaupt, a German traveler and writer, called Malta's honey "superior to all other honey in the world". That could be debated, but honey is still produced on Malta and Gozo, and it's very good, drawing much of its flavor and fragrance from the islands' wild thistle, clover, and thyme from May through August, and from orange blossoms in the winter.

Wine was first made in Malta in Roman times, nearly died out under Arab occupation, and flourished again with the arrival of the Knights of St. John—who were particularly fond of the grape. The Maltese wine industry has always remained small, however, due to poor soil and arid weather. Two local vintners, Marsovin and Lachryma Vitis, produce several white and red table wines from Maltese grapes, and they also process imported Italian grapes. Malta also has a national soft drink, Kinnie, flavored with oranges and bitter aromatic herbs. It is typically served ice-cold, with a slice of lemon.

Two weeks after accompanying Marija Cassar to Lucy Debono's bakery in Qormi, I'm in Grace Farrugia's bakery, in the village of Nadur, on Gozo, talking with a handful of women and a few small, fidgeting children in a combination of English and my faltering Maltese. Some of the women are waiting to pick up their food—in this case, mostly pastizzi and qassata—but some have come for the bread, or for the bakery's little pizzas, topped with fresh tomatoes, peppers, cheese, potato slices, and sometimes small, whole fish.

I tell the women how much their cooking reminds me of the food I used to eat on Sundays with my Maltese grandmothers in New York. They seem pleased, and it occurs to me that they almost certainly first encountered pastizzi and qassata and the other staples of Maltese cuisine in the kitchens of their own grandmothers. I'd like to think that their grandchildren will one day be able to say the same.

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