Malta Feb 2013 – Maltese Food

pastizzi-cafe-newtown-15And 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 hasimqaret 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.

7712974_origOne 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.

hobzAnother 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!

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Malta – A Funeral

Malta is a small island in the Mediterranean Sea south of Italy, it has a population of around 400,000 people yet is only 122 square miles making it one of the most densely populated countries in the world. It’s location, between north Africa and Europe, means it has a rich and interesting history, invaded by everyone and his dog and finally gaining independence in 1964 when the British decided to let the Maltese have their island back. The official language is Maltese which up until the 1930’s was a spoken language only, most Maltese also speak fluent English and Italian. Bruce tells me there are 365 churches on this predominantly Catholic small island and one of these churches is Saint Helena Basilica in Bruces home town of Birkirkara. Most towns have a Festa celebrating their church and village and the Festa of St Helena was on 21st August this year, the day Bruces Nan died. I believe she had lived in the same house in Birkirkara all of her married life, giving birth to 12 children including Bruce’s Mum, Bruce’s Uncle still lives in the house that Bruce grew up in. Mary (Bruce’s Nan) loved the Festa celebrations each year, with the parades and the Band Club and spectacular fireworks at night, so it is fitting that she died on the day of the Festa and her beloved church was still dressed up to the nines on the day of her funeral.

We stayed with Bruces Uncle who is a former politician and had many stories to tell regarding the turbulent political history of Malta. In the early 1980s he was exiled to Italy for broadcasting his parties message from Sicily following the then Prime Ministers (Mintoff) nationalisation and censorship of the media. His stories and the family history were fascinating and quite extraordinary and far removed from his suburban life in Attard. He didn’t see his mother for 6 years during the exile which must have been hard on Mary and for this reason and because he is a friend of the family, the Prime Minister of Malta Dr Lawrence Gonzi paid his respects to Bruces Nan by attending the funeral.

The service was moving with a lone female singer playing guitar in one of Maltas most beautiful churches. Her rendition of Amazing Grace was simply stunning. Bruces Nan was likened to one of the silent heroines of the Old Testament, suffering and enduring what life delivered in silence with dignity and grace. Her perseverance, suffering and endurance has a message for us all in this consumer led society. I didn’t understand anything during the service, except for when Bruce spoke of his Nan at the pulpit, as the service was in Maltese but it was translated afterwards. Mary had ‘lived a poor woman’ but had saved so that she could ‘be buried like a rich woman’ and her wishes were granted as 200 people including family, friends and senior dignitaries sat and prayed for her in the splendour of the church.

I met Mary on several occasions on two brief visits to Malta and it was not until I had seen the bond and love between Bruce and herself that I understood why he feels he is more Maltese than English. He completely fits into the Maltese life (except for the religious bit) and his family history is strewn with politics and drama and goes a long way to explaining his strong political views, one ancestor even made it to Prime Minister of Malta in the 1950’s. He has relations in England he adores but it was his Grandmother who first showed him unconditional love and I am glad he was part of saying a final goodbye to a remarkable woman whom he loved very much. Sleep tight Mary xx

St Helena

A Sad Journey Home

Our brilliant Plymouth weekend ended on a sad note. We arrived back at our friends and sat enjoying a coffee before our journey back to Leicester, via Stamford to pick up Bruces 2 children from their Mums. Bruce checked his messages on the computer where he discovered his Maltese Nana had died that morning.

Most of us love our Nans and it is a very sad time when they die, but for Bruce his Nan was special as he was raised by her in Malta until he was around 8 years of age, for him his Nan was his mother and the absolute, unconditional love between them on our 2 short visits to Malta was plain to see. She had lived a poor woman, giving birth to 12 children including Bruces Mum who died when he was young. She had been saving money so she could have the funeral “of a rich woman” and there was no question that Bruce would not be there.

We drove from Plymouth to Stamford to pick Bruces children up and then back to Leicester. We discovered that the funeral was to be held at 9am Tuesday morning which meant we had to fly out on Monday. Frantic internet flight searching ensued and we eventually found a flight departing 6.30am from Manchester. I have never packed so quickly and with passports in hand we left our house just after midnight to drop the kids off with my wonderfully dependable parents (thanks Mum and Dad), after a quick coffee we then set off for Manchester Airport which we arrived at about 4am. We boarded around 6am and left to say a final farewell to Bruces Nan in the place Bruce regards as home – Malta.