47. Malta

When I broke the news that Maltese cuisine was on the menu this week, my notoriously sweet-toothed boyfriend was hopeful that we would therefore be eating Maltesers, which are balls of wafer coated in chocolate. Some quick research, however, revealed that Maltesers take their name from a combination of “malt” and tease”, and have nothing to do with the islands of Malta. Quite the devastating disappointment… In reality, Maltese cuisine is an exemplar of culinary fusion. The name “Malta” is thought to have come from a derivation of the Greek for honey, named so because of an endemic species of bees from the island whose honey was purportedly especially sweet. Malta consists of a remote group of small, but densely populated, islands off the coast of Sicily in Italy that has been inhabited since 5200 BC, and has been historically fought over by world powers due to its importance in naval strategy and trade routes. Indeed, it is commonly cited as the centre of the old world. One of the most famous inhabitants were the Knights Hospitaller, who were a medieval Catholic military order that were driven out of Rhodes in the 16th century, and subsequently colonised Malta for 300 years to protect Roman Christianity from the south. The Phoenicians, Romans, Moors, Normans, Sicilians, Spanish, French and British have all reigned over the centuries, with Malta becoming an independent state in 1964. The food has therefore dramatically evolved over the different changes of power to suit the tastes of the commanding residents, and Mediterranean, European and Arabic cuisines have subsequently combined, also influenced by the availability of ingredients, which are mostly imported. An honourable mention of a popular food that I didn’t cook this week is pastizzi, which are savoury pastries usually filled with local cheeses or mushy peas. A final interesting fact: the Maltese people are apparently the most generous in the world, with 83% of the population giving to charity. I assume their generosity would extend to food customs, and that dinner at a Maltese home would be a welcoming and comforting affair.


Bragioli

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Bragioli, translating to “beef olives”, are parcels of veal mince, combined with bread crumbs, garlic, bacon, parsley, oregano and egg to set. They are wrapped in very thin flattened strips of beef steaks, tied up with string, then cooked in a stew of tomato, red wine, and vegetables. I used small whole potatoes, onions and tomatoes, as well as carrots and peas, flavoured with basil, bay leaves and parsley in my stew. The name “beef olives” is a bit confusing, as there aren’t actually any olives in the dish, but it is thought to have come about because the beef parcels resemble stuffed olives once they are cooked. All of the recipes for this dish made a point of saying that it was particularly good for using cuts of beef that were not of high quality. I therefore bought one of the cheapest cuts in the supermarket, with not a great deal of faith that it would turn out as tender as they said. Happily, I was wrong: the meat was soft and delicious, and the red wine infusion created a wonderful gradient of taste throughout the mince parcels. This meal is a good example of the “rustic” or “peasant” Maltese food, making the best out of common and/or substandard ingredients, with some special flair coming not from its expense, but its careful and time-consuming preparation. However, as with most peasant food, it produces some of the most delicious, ingenious and comforting meals.


Torta tal lampuki

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“Torta” means pie and “lampuki” is a particular type of Maltese fish. Torta tal lampuki is therefore a Maltese fish pie. Being an island nation, Malta is especially dependent on seafood, and the lampuki season, which occurs between August and November, is greatly anticipated by fishermen and inhabitants alike. I couldn’t source lampuki, so instead I used tuna, which is also used to make pies in Malta. To make the filling I combined the cooked tuna with spinach, onion, garlic, parsley, tomatoes, capers, peas and olives – sautéing everything until it was cooked. I then made my pie crust with my trusted recipe of butter, flour, salt and water, mixed up in the food processor and kneaded into a dough. I then rolled out sheets, placed the filling inside, and sealed up the edges. I made little freehand fish out of the extra dough to denote its filling, although they didn’t turn out quite as artistically as I had hoped. Perhaps I should stick to cooking? Pies are very traditional British fare, but the addition of tomatoes, olives and capers lends an unmistakable Mediterranean flavour. Tora tal lampuki therefore exemplifies the culinary fusion of Maltese history.


Soppa tal-armla

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Soups are much loved in Malta, and many varieties are frequently made by home-cooks and restaurant alike. Soppa tal-armla literally means “widow’s soup”, which is one of the more evocative names I’ve come across during my cooking adventure. Luckily the soup is not thought to cause widowhood, but rather is nutritious, easy and cheap such that it is popular amongst widows. As with most recipes that were developed by a community of home-cooks, there is no definitive recipe for this dish, but it is usually made with vegetables (most often cauliflower, kohlrabi, carrot, potato, garlic and onion) in a broth flavoured with tomatoes or tomato paste and garnished with parsley. On top of this is placed servings of gbejniet, which are small white soft Maltese cheeses. This sort of cheese is actually protected by the European Union, and as such cannot be made outside of Malta. It was therefore impossible for me to find in Australia, so I substituted a soft sheep’s feta, which is apparently similar. This dish is certainly nutritious, cheap and comforting, and I’m quite glad that widows have adopted it as their eponymous dish – I hope that it nourishes and warms them for many years to come!


Fried rabbit

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Rabbit is a national ingredient of Maltese cuisine, the most common dishes being fried or stewed rabbit. The consumption of rabbit dates back to the time of the knights and was particularly important during a midsummer’s feast, which took place on June 29th. As I was already making a stew this week, I chose fried rabbit, which is traditionally eaten with chips. My first mission was to actually find rabbit, which is not popular to eat in Australia, and is generally considered a Depression food. Complicating things further is the fact that rabbits are illegal in Queensland, where I live, reinforced by some very threatening signs on the way in, proclaiming that smuggling one into the state could cost you up to $44,000. A steep price indeed. Eventually, however, I found a butcher who imports frozen rabbit meat, and I bought one whole. Once I cut the rabbit into pieces, I marinated it overnight in red wine, lots of garlic, bay leaves, thyme, salt and pepper. The next day I fried the pieces on all sides, then let them simmer for a while in the marinade to absorb maximum flavour. I’ve had rabbit once or twice in restaurants, but had never cooked it. I was surprised by how light and subtle the meat is – like chicken but denser. I cooked the “chips” in the oven on a very low heat and they were crunchy and delicious, especially when paired with peas, which are a particular favourite of mine.

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