Food is an important part of Maltese culture, incorporating traditionally prepared Maltese food, cooking and setting up dinner gatherings which usually contribute to the more close-knit families and communities found in Malta. The Maltese are particularly fond of rabbit and many restaurants that serve traditional Maltese dishes promote rabbit as being their speciality dish, usually gaining a loyal clientele through word-of-mouth. Other dishes found on the menu in Maltese food specialty restaurants include the rather exotic kangaroo meat and quail.
Maltese bread is well known and loved by locals and tourists alike. Its hard crust hides a very tasteful, fluffy inside – perfect for a nice summer’s day lunch with some sun-dried tomatoes and tuna for example. In many towns and villages, the local baker sells his bread by driving around the streets, delivering fresh bread to Maltese families daily.
The fertile fields worked by Maltese farmers produce an abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables, being sold at relatively low prices as a result, by green grocers who often set up shop at the side of main roads and busy places in all towns and villages. Certain villages, such as Mgarr in the Western part of Malta, organize an annual celebration of the year’s fresh crops, which is an event that is becoming increasingly popular throughout the island. Farmers show off their often record-surpassing sized fruit and friendly competitions are organized to “reward” those farmers whose fruit and veg are judged as being this year’s cream of the crop of local produce.
Fish is an important part of numerous dishes of Maltese food and cooking, as Malta is a nation surrounded by sea. Fish often takes centre stage in daily family meals but also on restaurant menus, with some establishments specializing in the preparation of various types of delicious fish and other sea food. In Malta, the village of Marsaxlokk is known as the fishing village, whereas Marsalforn in Gozo enjoys a similar status.
Maltese food in summer
It’s summer. Time to unwind after winter, even though winters in Malta are very mild compared to winter on the continent. Winter in Malta does not usually really start to bite until after Christmas and by February, it’s often over. But summer is the time when days are longer, the sea is of a ‘come hither’ shade of blue, when traditional Maltese food is mostly enjoyed and the fruit is just dripping nectar in a bid to prove that they are the best nature can produce. Peaches, especially the late ones that tend to ripen in August and September, are plump and juicy. Plums, of which there are several varieties, are just as good.
Melons, especially watermelons, are something to write home about. With watermelons, big is usually better. The bigger the melon, the better the taste. Luckily some vendors have got into the habit of doing what Sicilians have been doing for ages, selling by the slice or at least, giving you the option to buy half a melon by weight. At least you know if it’s really ripe and sweet. Maltese grapes have a particular flavour – parched by the Mediterranean sun, the white grape can be anything from green to brownish while the purplish-black grapes are supple and juicy.
Summer is also the best time for simple snacks. There’s nothing like Hobz biz-zejt on the beach. You can buy ready-made Hobz biz-zejt from any beach resort or takeaway, but the ingredients are so simple that getting it wrong is really impossible.
Crusty Maltese bread, spread with kunserva (tomato paste), laced with olive oil, arid seasoned with salt and pepper, is simply delicious. A fresh tomato rubbed onto the bread is just as good as tomato paste. For those who want to spice up their sandwich with more ingredients, the possibilities are as big as your appetite: sun dried tomatoes, basil, a slab of local cheeslet – which comes in two varieties, plain or peppered pickled vegetables, freshly diced or pickled onions, garlic, tuna, lettuce, The list is deliciously endless.
Early in the season, fresh green beans make an excellent side salad to such a sandwich, but by early summer, the beans start to dry – one of the varieties can still be used with hobz biz-zejt, but in another way.
As if the choice were not endless, you can choose which type of bread you want for your sandwich. Maltese bread lends itself much better to these types of snacks, You can go for a ftira, a flat type of bread which has more crust than anything else, a panina, which is a miniature loaf, or a loaf which you can slice, or buy readily sliced, to make sandwiches.
Summer is a time of plenty, and before the advent of fridges, freezers and imports, our ancestors found canny ways to preserve vegetables and fruit which abound in summer but are notoriously absent in winter.
Tomatoes were cooked for hours and turned into a deep coloured paste which could be stored in jars and then spread on bread or added to sauces. Tomatoes were also dried in the sun, a process which involved cutting them in half and sprinkling them with salt and a pinch of sugar. Tomatoes were also preserved in brine. Country folk knew there was enough salt in the brine by placing an egg in it. If it floated, the amount of salt was just right. The egg was then removed from the jar and whole tomatoes were placed in the jars and could be preserved to be consumed until the fresh ones were available again. Tomatoes preserved in brine can last for years. The longer they stay in brine though, the saltier they will taste.
Onions and a few other vegetables were pickled. Green beans become too hard to eat in summer, so they were either grilled and salted and eaten as a snack, just as one eats nuts. Beans were also turned into bigilla, a brown paste made out of boiled, mushed beans, seasoned with olive oil, salt and red pepper that both preserves it and spices up its taste. Bigilla can be also served as a dip.
It was not only vegetables that were preserved. Figs were sun dried, just like tomatoes, except that no salt and sugar were added. It was just the sun that kissed them dry in two or three days. The secret is that, just like tomatoes, they need to be taken indoors at night as they will rot if they are left out at night because of dew. Figs were also preserved in another way. After being sun dried, they were placed in layers in a wooden box, and each layer was sprinkled with fennel and laced with aniseed. Some also threw in a few roasted almonds between each layer. A layer of dried bay leaves is placed in the bottom and on top and a weight is then pressed on top, turning the figs into a chunk. Wood absorbed the fluid that oozed as a result of the pressing action of the weight, and after a few weeks, the block was ready for consumption. A small piece, the size of a matchbox, was cut off each time and eaten for dessert. The slab of tin imqadded this size would be equivalent to at least half a dozen figs.
Grapes were preserved by turning it into that eternal drink – wine. Then there are prickly pears. Free is always best and one of the best fruit is undoubtedly prickly pear, which grows on the side of country lanes. Cut first thing in the morning and peeled after they are soaked in water to remove their menacing, often invisible, spines, prickly pears are best eaten after being left to cool down in the fridge for the best part of the day. The different colours do not really made a difference in the way they taste, but the shades of red, green and orange in the bowl are a feast for the eye.
Travelers who came to Malta in the early 1800s commented that the Maltese were “Olive oil and pickled fish eating islanders” and that “a clove of garlic and a piece of bread were the staple diet of many”. Though one can no longer say that these foods are a staple diet all year round, a look around you at the beach is bound to show you that such snacks are still very popular, in spite of the proliferation of hamburgers and fish and chips sellers.