Sweet Celebration

Malta is a devoutly Catholic country (legend has it that St. Paul converted the islanders when he was shipwrecked here on his way to Rome in A.D. 60), and it observes many religious holidays—most of which seem to be associated with some variety of traditional confection or dessert.

During the Christmas season, for instance, Gozotians enjoy qagħaq ta' kavatelli, a rich almond and honey dessert, and imbuljuta, a hot cocoa and chestnut soup. At Carnival in Valletta, held every year just before Lent, the requisite costume parades are fueled by a pine-nut cake called prinjolata. When Lent arrives, so do kwareżimal, biscuits made with almonds and brown sugar, with crushed almonds sprinkled on top, but without eggs or shortening. On Good Friday, the Maltese eat a hard candy made from ġulepp tal-ħarrub, or carob syrup. On Easter Sunday, it's figolli, a marzipan-filled pastry cut into various shapes (lambs or young girls, for instance) and topped with a pastel-colored icing, with a small chocolate egg in its center.

Besides the better-known holidays, there are more than 80 individual festas in Malta, held by towns and villages in honor of their patron saint. These tend to be quite elaborate events, with church services followed by processions down extravagantly decorated streets, fireworks in the evening sky, and brass bands playing early into the morning. On these occasions, the confection of choice at the many food stands that are always set up is qubbajt, a nougat flavored with either almonds and sesame seeds or candied fruit peels.