Maltese cuisine is the offspring of a long relationship between the indegenous people of the islands and the many foreign dominations over the centuries.
Maltese food is rustic and based on seasonal produce and the fisherman's catch. Although many vegetables and fruit are grown locally all year round, the average Maltese housewife takes advantage of seasonal gluts to stock up and feed her family economical ly. Perhaps unconsciously following previous generations of her won womenfolk, who combined thrift and creativity to satisfy the appetites of their large families.
Pastry of all kinds is used to encase vegetables, cheese, fish, meat, rice and pasta, producing tasty and filling dishes. These include delicate combinations of young cauliflower florets, sheep or goat cheeses and egg contained in a crisp pastry, similar in taste to quiche, or the stronger taste of Lampuki pie, filleted dorado mixed with spinach, cauliflower, chestnuts and sultanas in shortcrust pastry. It has an unusual and delicious taste. Spinach and anchovy pies have a strong taste, but are very popular, as is Timpana, an everyday concoction of pasta in a meat sauce topped with a layer of pastry.
The most universally eaten Maltese pastry will hardly escape the notice of the visitor who explores the streets taking in the sounds, sights and scents of Malta. It is "pastizzi' , probably Turkish in origin, a small (four mouthfulls) boat shaped, delicacy of ricotta cheese and egg wrapped with thin crisp pastry, something between filo and puff. One may prefer and also try "pastizzi' filled with peas, or a larger version with meat or anchovies. These are sold on street corners and in village bars everywhere, and eaten hot. Maltese normally take them as a snack with tea and coffee.
Stewed and stuffed dishes are also an important feature of Maltese cuisine. Look for stuffed octopus, squid and cuttlefish served in a spicy tomato sauce. Stewed rabbit cooked in wine and herbs, "bragoli", parcels of mince, chopped eggs, breadcrumbs and p arsley wrapped in thin sheets of beef, simmered very gently in a gravy. Stuffed poultry, roasted on a bed of sliced potatoes, onions, garlic and herbs, served crisp and brown from the oven. Seasonal vegetables, such as aubergines, tomatoes, peppers, baby marrows and onions are very tasty stuffed with minced meats, olives and other vegetables such as onions and garlic with fresh herbs. These make a good antipasto too, served cold before the main dish.
The Maltese kitchen has much in common with its Sicilian neighbors. The two islands are only 60 miles apart and their climatic conditions, soil and fish are very similar. Pasta is a staple food of the Maltese family and though available, pre-packed and fr esh in every village, many women still prefer the laborious job of preparing their own favorite "ravjul" (ravioli). Semi-circular pockets made from a semolina based pasta dough, filled with ricotta cheese and fresh parsley, served with a homemade tomato s auce flavored with celery and fresh basil and sprinkled with coarsely grated parmesan cheese. "Ravjul" was originally one answer to the Church decree to abstain from meat on Fridays.
Due to the lack of fire-wood ovens in centuries past, a slow cooking method was used to prepare most Maltese dishes. Food was placed in earthenware pots over a little stone hearth called "kenur" which needed constant tending and fanning. Subsequently, slow simmering became something of the hallmark of many Maltese dishes and despite the inroduction of gas and electric cookers, slow cooking is still the housewife's favorite.
Lunchtime cooking aromas can be detected very early in the morning in village streets. Since ovens were so rare in the olden days, the Sunday dish was taken, covered with a clean tea-towel, to the communal village oven. Here, the family's metal identity t ag was attached. The baker then took responsibility for cooking the most important meal of the week for many of the villagers. When it was carried home piping hot to the expectant family. This tradition is still very much alive in villages and Maltese house wives maintain that many dishes taste different and much better when cooked in the baker's oven. One of the most common popular dishes cooked this way is "ross fil-forn", oven-baked rice, with minced meat and tomato sauce.
Seasonal salads and vegetables are an important feature of the Maltese kitchen. The best loved and most healthy dish is probably "minestra" (minestrone", a thick vegetable soup combining numerous fresh and dried vegetables, served with fresh or grated "gb ejniet" - sheep or goats cheese. "Qarabali" (baby marrows) similar though milder in taste to courgettes is the base of another delicious thick and creamy soup.
When fish is in abundance you will find "Aljotta" (fish soup) on the menu, a fish stock laced with plenty of garlic, tomatoes, fresh marjoram and rice. In late spring when the broad bean begins to coarsen, a hearty soup, "Kusksu" is very popular, the bean is left whole to simmer in a liquid containing onion and tomato puree to which a small type of cooked pasta grain and fresh cheese is added on serving. In summer, a Maltese version of ratatouille called "Kapunata" is made from tomatoes, green peppers, au bergines and garlic, and goes very well with grilled fresh fish. Needless to say, all these delicious soups are taken with generous slices of the marvellous crusty Maltese bread (hobza) baked fresh daily in old fashioned and modern bakeries everywhere - j ust follow your nose!
While on the subject of bread, one cannot miss mentioning another deliciously rustic component of the national staple diet; the "hobz biz-zejt" (bread with oil). Once the traditional "packed lunch" of the farmer and worker, it makes a delightful beach sna ck. It comprises a large, thick round of cristy bread dipped in olive oil, onto which the pulp of a ripe sliced tomato is ribbed. Then this is topped with capers, olives, garlic, black pepper and salt. Sometimes tuna or anchovies are added with frsh mint or basil. Small toasted pieces are often served in restaurants as a predinner appetiser.
With the advent of summer the variety of locally caught fish increases. "Spinotta" (bass), "dott" (stone bass), "cerna" (grouper), "dentici" (dentix), "accjola" (amber jack), "sargu" (white bream), and "trill" (red mullet) are served in most restaurants, together with prawns, octopus, mussels, and sea dates. In August "pixxispad" (sword-fish), "lampuki" (dorado) and "fanfri" (pilot fish) are caught daily. By the end of summer, "lampuki" becomes plentiful and is sold cheaply.
The first rainstorm late in September brings out the Maltese snail in droves, and people can be seen collecting them in the countryside to make into a stew. This may sound rather unappetising to the gourmet, more used to his escargot encased in a shell and heavily flavored with garlic, but if you are not around to smell them when they are being boiled, you will find the taste very good, eaten cold with a green sauce of fresh herbs and garlic, accompanied by crusty bread.
For those with a sweet tooth there are a number of unusual treats to sample; try the deep-fried date-filled pastries (imqaret), which smell marvellous. Look for cake shops selling treacle rings (qaghaq tal-ghasel) and almond macaroons (biskuttini tal-lewz ). At Easter try cut out figurines of icing coated biscuits (figolli) stuffed with a ground almond mixture.
During the summer when each village commemorates the feast of it's patron saint with a pyrotechnic display you will find elaborate gilded stalls selling opaque, white and clear, dark brown nougat made with sugar and nuts.
A favorite delicacy with coffee or tea is "kannoli", believed to have originated from Sicily. This is a mouth-watering tube shaped confection of deep-fried crisp pastry stuffed with fresh ricotta cheese and sweetened with pieces of chocolate and candied fruit. After dinner you may be offered "helwa tat-tork", a very sweet sugary mixture of crushed and whole almonds.
Maltese people do not generally favor cooked desserts such as sweet pastries. The better restaurants have good sweet trolleys, but often a light imitation cream is used instead of fresh cream, principally because of the difficulties of transporting fresh cream daily in very hot temperatures. Modest establishments tend to offer simply ice-cream or gateaux. There are many fruits grown in Malta; sweet peaches, juicy melons, apricots, nectarines, red and yellow medlars, pommegranates, miniature pears, grapes and of course citrus fruits: grapefruit, tangerines and oranges. At Christmas the "sweet" Maltese orange is available and is particularly juicy and delicious.
Maltese wines are not expensive and some are of excellent quality. Gozo wines tend to be stronger. Maltese beers and lagers are of high quality.
Armed with this rudimentary knowledge of Maltese cuisine you can now look for the right variety of settings to try out the food. There are some very attractive restaurants nestling in the small bays where you can dine next to the water's edge with a view of the fishing boats. Other restaurants are perched high up within the ancient bastions of the capital city Valletta or Victoria in Gozo, with spectacular harbor views or Gozo's terraced countryside. Look too for the intimate weathered courtyards with worn flagstones and old walls covered with geraniums, where small tables and candlelight provide the most romantic settings. Compromise sometimes on the setting, and search out the better family-run bars which specialise in rabbit with wine and herbs, or octopus with spaghetti, and by balancing your budget you will also get an enjoyable first hand taste of Maltese cuisine.