Malta?! I put my hand in the bag first and out of the 25 countries I drew Malta. My GCSE Geography dusted itself off and swung into action. ‘Small Island, somewhere in the Med, bombed a lot during the war’ it said. But as for food, it drew a blank, along with the rest of my knowledge.
Bernard Hamilton: Deputy High Commissioner of Malta
The next day when I asked the press person at the Maltese tourist office about Maltese food in London he replied “there isn’t any”. Two hours later I’m sat in the office of the Deputy High Commissioner for the Republic of Malta having Maltese coffee and biscuits. “It’s true, sadly there’s no Maltese restaurants here,” says Bernard Hamilton. Bernard very kindly found 30 minutes at ridiculously short notice to talk to me about Malta, it’s history and people, and it’s relationship to the UK. Churchill once called Malta the ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’, and the former British colony is now an active member of the Commonwealth. “Our natural resource is our culture and heritage,” says Bernard, a heritage that has been shaped by nearly all the civilisations of antiquity as well as a few modern ones laying claim to the islands. Empire’s come and go, but Malta remains it seems. In fact the main island is home to the oldest free standing structures in the world, these rocks are old.
We come on to Eurovision. “Jade was in Malta a few weeks ago. (She was a guest of their act-choosing show) In Malta we take Eurovision very seriously”. It’s front-page news apparently. Malta, you’ll no doubt be aware, (mostly) give us the maximum 12 points no matter who we send to the competition (yes even Scootch). They are our last unsinkable ally against the axis of eastern Eurovision dominance, our brothers in arms, as Mike Atkinson says in the Guardian ‘we owe them’.
I move the discussion on to food. Bernard talks about the coffee we’re drinking, which is flavoured with fennel, cloves and something called cikwejra, which it turns out is chicory. The traditional flavoured coffees are falling out of favour, being replaced by the standard Italian styles. We also have some little dry biscuits to dip into the coffee. We move on to more substantial matters. “The national dish is rabbit,” says Bernard. “Families often keep their own rabbits to eat, and so consequently look after them well”. We talk some more about being a diplomat, Bernard won Young Diplomat of the year for his consular work, and the day to day tasks of the Commission, which are dealing with visas, promoting trade and tourism, and helping look after Malta’s interests in the UK. Before I leave Bernard very kindly gives me some Maltese wine, a 2006 Medina Vineyard. It’s a blend of syrah, Grenache and carignan from Delicata and gratefully received.
Things are moving…
I head back home and get a call from one of the other leads I’d frantically found earlier in the morning; Barbara from the Maltese Cultural Movement. We arrange to meet in a pub in Highgate, as she’s a few Maltese treats for me. These turn out to be some bottles of Cisk (pronounced Chisk) lager, six cans of Kinnie (a bitter/sweet soft drink native to Malta) and some Pastizzi – the ubiquitous (in Malta anyway) snack. Pastizzi come with either ricotta or pea fillings, and each village baker has their own way of making them – all done by hand. The ones I’ve got are frozen; I’ll be having them during Eurovision. If you want to try some either order them off Barbara or keep an eye out for Cynthia who runs www.ilovepastizzi.com and does some of the markets in London. Kinnie is a bitter drink made from oranges, but with slight aniseed notes. It’s reminds me of Campari, and is probably best served ice cold in a little café in Valetta. It’s the Irn Bru of Malta.
Cisk lager and Kinnie soft drink
Barbara and her husband set up the Maltese Cultural Movement 11 years ago “because there was nothing really for the Maltese people in the UK”. (Earlier Bernard estimated that people of Maltese extraction number 50,000 in the UK, mostly based in London). “When we opened the centre in April 1998 we were overwhelmed by the response”. They now organise three Maltese themed events every year, the next being June 27th to celebrate mnarja. The festival takes place in Malta to honour St Peter and St Paul. “The whole island gets together, and it was at the festival that you hoped to meet a wife or a husband,” says Barbara. Indeed from listen to both Barnard and Barbara the Maltese like to party most weekends of the summer, there’s always something going on. (More on Maltese festivals here)
Barbara then talks about the future of the Maltese Cultural Movement, “when we set it up, we go the support of the first generation community, those that came over after the war, now we’re into the second and third generation –as well as young Maltese coming here for the first time – we need to be there for them too.”
Barbara also gives me a rabbit recipe, and here it is.
1 rabbit cut into portions
Plenty of Garlic cut roughly (nearly a whole bulb)
White wine (couple of large glasses, maybe more)
Fry the rabbit in a shallow oil and add half the garlic, season with salt and pepper. When the rabbit is golden in colour add the bay leaf for about a minute then take out the excess oil. Add the rest of the garlic and fry a little before adding the white wine and simmering until tender.
Lots of garlic, lots of bay leaf
More Maltese kindness
Garlic it seems is key it seems to Maltese cooking, and indeed ‘did you put the garlic?’ is the blog name of a second generation Maltese Mary Rose who I met next.
Mary and her lovely cakes
Mary-Rose was born in Melbourne to Maltese parents, she went to and fro between the Island and Oz before eventually settling in the UK. We arrange to meet at St Pancras at 7:45 and since finishing work at 6 she’s been home and baked me some cakes – I’m aghast. She’s also got a Maltese cookbook to lend me “my mother thinks this book’s rubbish” she says. The cakes are Pastini tal coconut, and here’s the recipe.
250g plain flour
500g desiccated coconut
A few drops of vanilla essence
Method (makes four dozen)
Rub the flour and butter together, them mix through the coconut. Then mix in the sugar and vanilla essence. Whisk the eggs into the mixture. Roll into little balls and decorate with glace cherries or almonds. Bake for 10-15 minutes at 200 degrees.
‘My mother always makes these in huge batches” says Mary, who then goes on to tell me about the pleasures and pitfalls of a Maltese mother. It seems that Maltese mothers are at the heart of the home, and Malta is a place where many traditional values are still present (The word for wife is the same as for woman). “My other half says it’s not so much backward, as just in a time warp”.
Mary goes on to talk about everything from the Maltese film industry to post war rationing to her mother’s lack of a toaster and the joy that is hobz biz-zejt. The later is literally translated as bread and oil, yet is more of an open sandwich. Take the traditional Maltese bread and place ripe sliced tomatoes on top, then add capers and tuna, before drizzling on a lot of olive oil. “This was often my lunch at School in Melbourne, when all the other kids had veggie-mite sandwiches” says Mary.
Bernard, Barbara and Mary all talked about rabbit as the national dish, and as it happens I had a bunny in the freezer from my trip round Smithfield Meat Market. So, armed with a recipe from Barbara and a Maltese Cookbook Mary lent me, I’m ready cook the Maltese national dish…
Rabbit, with liver in
Stuffat tal-fenek aka stewed rabbit.
Barbara’s rabbit casserole.
Rabbit (plus liver and kidney’s). Red wine. Garlic. Onion. Tomatoes. Bay leaves. Spices (Chinese five spice). Salt & Pepper. Peas (Marrowfat).
Cut the rabbit into six pieces (legs, loin and front legs)
Sauté the rabbit with onion, garlic and wine and tomato sauce (made from more onion, garlic, bay leaf, spices and wine) simmer gently and add the peas.
It’s 9:30pm by the time I get back home, and the aim of the stew is to cook it long and slow so the meat’s almost falling off the bones, so this is very much going to have to be a dish for tomorrow. I’m not very good at following recipes while cooking. Some people can’t be with out them, relying on them as a classical musician might rely on sheet music. I tend to riff a little when it comes to cooking, Barbara’s recipe calls for Chinese five spice, Mary’s book calls for curry powder and some pork belly. I’ve got none of these in the house, so opt for a tea spoon of garum masala. I just remember what Barbara said, ‘lots of garlic and bay leaf’, and put in loads.
Next, the rabbit. Why I think rabbit fell out of favour and was replaced by chicken is that when it’s laid out in front of you, it looks like a dead skinned animal, where as a chicken – upside down with legs and feet off – just looks raw. The way to deal with any squeamish thoughts you might have is to just get stuck in and cut it up, once you’ve broken the form it too can just look like raw ingredients. I chop it down into legs, loin and other bits, deciding to leave the head out, and brown it in the pan having first removed the onions and garlic.
ready for tonight!
I put the lot back in and add a glass of Bernard’s Maltese wine and a carton of passata, bringing it up to a high heat. Lastly I add the liver, which is very delicate. Barbara recommends frying this with more garlic and oil before adding a splash of malt vinegar and eating – but it’s now getting on a bit so I just add it in and hope it’ll flavour the sauce. I set my oven to 100 degrees and pop the casserole in and set the time to turn off at 6am, giving 7 hours of long slow cooking. Most recipes call for peas to be added, Barbara says marrowfat are the best, but I’ve only got petit pois and they’ll have disintegrated after 7 hours cooking so I decide to add those when I reheat it tomorrow.
This morning the stew looks amazing, the sauce has thickened and darkened considerably, and the rabbit is soft and moist. Traditionally you would spoon off some of the sauce and have that over spaghetti as a starter, then have the meat with potatoes as a main course. Which is what I intend to do, with a glass of Maltese wine, an appetiser of pastizzi or two, and a drink of Kinnie.
When I woke up on Friday I knew next to nothing about Malta, and bugger all about its food. In 24 hours I’ve had coffee with the deputy high commissioner and sourced Maltese products and recipes first hand, which is exactly what Eating Eurovision is all about. As I said in the guidelines, most people are proud of their heritage and culture, and want to share it, and that makes the world a better place. There may not be a Maltese restaurant in London, but there’s lots of people who are proud to be Maltese, and who knows, maybe it’s time for one.