And so back to Malta and possibly on one of the coldest, windiest experiences of the Island ever. For those who follow this blog you will know that my significant other is Maltese/English and half of his family live in Malta where he grew up, for him Malta feels like home and no matter what the weather he enjoys visiting family and favourite spots. This year he was delighted to find a cart selling imqaret at the craft village – apparently these used to be sold at the bus station in Valletta but since that has been redeveloped the kiosk disappeared. His excitement was contagious, he rarely gets excited about anything, and I waited in the car while he skipped off full of enthusiasm to purchase some imqaret. I had no idea what imqaret was, I guessed it was a Maltese name for a doughnut and was curious to discover the source of his excitement. He returned triumphant with Date cakes and I tried very hard to conceal my disappointment – not because I was expecting a doughnut but because I’m not keen on dates. They are deep-fried in a pastry case and made fresh every day by the elderly owners of the cart. They cost the equivalent of pennies and it’s hard to understand how they make any kind of living on the edge of the craft village quite a way from any urbanisation – however if you are Maltese this is probably the place to go for your date fix.
Although I’m not keen on dates, there is plenty of traditional Maltese food I do like. Being so close to Italy there is a strong Italian influence in the form of pasta based meals. Bruce tells me his Sunday lunch as a child was ricotta filled ravioli home-made by his grand-father, many people observed their Catholic faith by not eating meat on a Sunday. One of Bruces favourite things was eating the ravioli at supper time, refried and dipped in sugar! But it is not only the Italians who influenced the food Maltese people eat, they are also close to the North African coast and spices, almonds and candied peel are often an integral part of Maltese cooking. Recipes are also influenced by historical poverty, availability and scarcity of ingredients. Rabbit is the national dish and rabbit stew a firm favourite even now, Bruce remembers keeping rabbits for the pot in the courtyard garden. Corned beef also has a place in many Maltese hearts as it was one of the few forms of meat they could obtain during the war which at one point took the islanders near to starvation. Even now one of Bruces uncles cooks up a mean corned beef lasagne.
One of my favourite dishes was lovingly prepared by his aunt and is called “Widow Soup” (soppa ta’ l’armla). It has evolved from a peasant recipe using food that was available on the island, as many of the traditional Maltese food has, such as pastizzi which is a bit like a small Cornish pasty only filled with peas or ricotta cheese. Widow soup starts life as a veg stew or broth to which is added teeny tiny pasta, goats cheese rounds and finally, right at the end of the cooking process, a few eggs are added and poached in the broth. The soup was served with Maltese bread, political discussions and great deal of warmth and generosity.
The warmth and generosity of the Maltese people is never expressed more than in their food and this was evident when we visited his cousin in Mosta in the middle of one rather cold afternoon. Laid on the table were plates of sandwiches, piles of pastizzi and bowls of Twisties (a kind of cross between NikNaks and Wotsit crisps). During that afternoon we consumed enough delicious calories to last a week and all served with the friendly hospitality that is a Maltese trademark.
Another of Bruces favourites is hobz biz zejt, a simple recipe of Maltese bread smeared with olive oil and tomatoes to which capers, onions and sometimes tuna are added. I have eaten this on several occasions in snack bars on the islands but the one time that comes to mind the most was not in Malta at all, it was on a campsite in France one hot and sunny afternoon. Bruce found some Maltese like bread and prepared the hobz biz zeht under the shade of a tree outside our tent. It was simple yet delicious and was just the right thing to set us up for an afternoon of lazing around in the heat.
The Maltese also have a sweet tooth and on any high street bakers and confectioners can be found with tempting window displays of cakes and pastries. The Arab influence is apparent in some of the sweet concoctions that are loved by nearly all Maltese. Helwa tat Tork is a sugary mixture of crushed almonds and almonds appear in many other favourites. Kannoli is sweet ricotta mix placed in pasta tubes and deep fried and possibly the national sweet dish of Malta such is its popularity, in fact many people take a box of kannoli when visiting friends and relatives. And of course Imqaret, which is where I started and for someone who is not keen on dates, I throughly enjoyed nibbling my way through the super hot sticky pastry mixture – I think I may be a date convert!