The islands of Malta, a jewel in the Mediterranean
Ashley Farnell, The Culinary Magician
A few years ago I visited the islands of Malta. Officially the Republic of Malta, it is a small and densely populated island nation consisting of an archipelago of seven islands in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. It lies directly south of Sicily, east of Tunisia and north of Libya. Malta is the only nation in the world that has collectively been awarded the George Cross for conspicuous gallantry in WWII as a part of the British Empire, and its flag bears a replica of that award.
I found the islands culture very similar to Greece, Spain and Italy in its own way, though the land was very unspoiled (not touristy) and the people were very traditional in their ways, with an unusual twist of things being a little British as well from the long standing British Empire rule.
Arriving at the airport was an experience as the runway basically stops at the sea and the planes come to an abrupt halt as quickly as possible. As long as the pilot doesn’t sneeze while attempting take off, losing valuable seconds in his decision when to climb, you should be ok!
It was quite far south for me, coming from England (and Malta is below the northern area of North Africa), and it was very humid and hard to get used to at first. There was no breeze at all (middle of August not really far from the equator, why did I think that it would be anything else but hot!!!)
Valetta Harbour.Exiting the airport, we went looking for the taxi rank (cab). The cars on the island, although in fairly good condition, are cars you remember as a small child from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. By then it was the mid 80’s. Some of these cars you only see in movies and you might have thought that they were gone from the roads for good.
The next unforgettable item on this holiday is the driving, not so much the individual but the culture. As I mentioned, the islands were (and are still) very rustic, unspoiled and the way people have lived for years, no rush to do things, everything done at a leisurely pace.
The roads although close to the airport and in the major towns “looked” like roads to the natives, coming from the western world they looked more like dust tracks - no markings etc. When driving in these areas out of the towns, while the regulation for driving is on the left as in Britain, they tend to drive in the shade of whatever buildings, walls etc they come across, so your journey can consist of swerving from one side of the road to the other for the shade, and also swerving back and forwards so as not to hit oncoming traffic as they will be driving in the shade as well! These guys were pros at this sport, but for first timers...Well, sitting in the taxi with someone else controlling my fate, let me tell you, I’ve never sweat so much. And it wasn’t from the heat.
Valetta with local buses.Once there, we decided to rent a car, as a lot of the places to see are on the main island, and while the island isn't particularly big, you still need transport. The rental cars are not much better than the taxis, and you either end up with a car older than the taxi (pre-1970) or a scooter (not for me on these roads!) or a donkey. We choose the car. A wise decision I thought, though later I had my doubts. Admittedly they weren’t cheap to rent, and then you both have to get in the drivers side because the passenger door doesn’t open (and this was one of the newer, fully loaded versions!!) and a trail of blue smoke exits the muffler (exhaust pipe) like a jet streaking across the sky. It seemed walking might have been a better way to go.
Staying at a small apartment complex just outside the town of Qawra, which is near to the “large metropolis” of Bugibba, (which also had its Sunday night highlight of all the local young men turning up in the market square, dressed in their best clothing, girls on their arms with these finely washed, polished cars from the 50’s with stereo’s blasting like we are used to in North America, the music systems probably worth more than the original price of the cars.)
Popeye village.The first and subsequent mornings we had the chance to witness the early morning call of a local gentleman. The area around the back of the apartment complex was scrub land, getting ready for house construction. Every day at about 7 am you could here the sound of braying animals and cow bells ringing. Yes it was the local goat herdsman with his goats (probably 25 -30) taking them for there early morning walk, and if you stood on your balcony, trying to understand why on your relaxing vacation you were allowing this annoying noise to wake you so early, you were sure to get a customary wave and greeting from this man unaware of the headaches he was causing. Very friendly people I might add.
Down to the local corner shop for groceries and a newspaper and shelves were stacked with Heinz products, mainly baked beans all the way from Manchester England, as I said the culture was very Mediterranean but still that British touch.
The sights that were a pleasure to see were
* Valetta harbour, which saw one of the most famous sea battles of WWII. As any historian will tell you, the Maltese and allied forces managed to hold on to the habour from the advancing enemy
* Valetta the town itself, with local buses all around that again remind you of a movie scene from the 50’s.
* The famous movie set from “Popeye” with Robin Williams. The set is called Popeye village and is situated at Anchor Bay
* The famous dome of the church in the town of Mosta which boasts the third largest unsupported dome in Europe
There is a small Jewish community on the Islands around the city of Valetta. The number of local "Maltese" Jewish families who identify themselves as Sephardim does not exceed about thirty families, reduced sometimes to one or two individuals, generally old. Most are Polyglots speaking several languages. There are others, mainly Ashkenazim installed here for a few years, the time of a contract with a multinational company. Some are refugees, Lebanese Jews, Factory Owners, tradesmen, British pensioners... They meet once a month for the celebration of the Shabbat - there are then fourteen or twenty men. They celebrate the Jewish festivals. And they hold a communal Seder in a Hotel every year. The community of Malta boasts of three Jewish cemeteries. The oldest, that of Kalkara, goes back to the 18th century. Next door to the “Turkish cemetery" with a very ornamental entrance, is the small current Jewish cemetery, in the suburbs of Marsa, which dates from the middle of the last century. The third is the neglected cemetery at Tal-Braxja overgrown by grass.
The inscriptions are in Italian for the oldest - perhaps there was nobody to write in Hebrew. On the other hand, the most recent ones are in Hebrew. Some, which date from the First World War, are in French: dedicated to the soldiers fallen at the time of the war of the Dardanelles. In these holy grounds lie side by side Jews who escaped from concentration camps, from Budapest or from Tunis, Oran or a German village, it is in this Jewish ground, away from the Promised Land, that they met their destiny.
Although the cuisine is a little bit of everything, it is predominantly a style of Italian mixed with some North African and Middle Eastern influences.
KWAREZIMAL - Almond Cakes (Almond Filling)
8 oz blanched almonds
8 oz plain flour, sifted
10 oz caster or golden caster sugar*
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Orange flower water**
Grated rind of 1 lemon, 1 orange and 1 tangerine
Honey and additional almonds
1. Lightly toast the almonds. Grind coarsely. Mix with the flour, sugar, cinnamon, rinds and a little orange-flower water.
2. Add just enough water to make stiff dough. Knead lightly until well amalgamated and shape into ovals, approximately
17.5 cm long, 5 cm wide and 2 cm thick.
3. Place on greased and floured baking trays and bake at 190'C/375'F/gas 5 for about 20 minutes.
4. While still hot, spread with honey and press on the almonds.
*Castor or caster sugar is the name of a very fine sugar in Britain, so named because the grains are small enough to fit though a sugar "caster" or sprinkler. It is sold as "superfine" sugar in the United States.
**Kosher Orange flower water is available here.
BRAGOLI - Beef olives
4 slices lean beef
3 oz Tomato paste
salt and pepper
2 hard boiled eggs cut to small pieces
8 oz. Peas
tsp dried basil
2 med Onions
1 lb Tomatoes
1. Prepare the beef by flattening them on a board.
2. In a bowl mix the chopped eggs, parsley, salt and pepper and a little bread crumbs.
3. Fill the flattened beef with the mixture then roll them up and put tooth picks so the filling won't come out.
4. In a hot frying pan fry the beef olives slightly to seal them and set them aside.
5. Fry the shredded onions, add the spice , basil ,tomato paste and chopped tomatoes to make a salsa (sauce)
6. Pour the salsa on the beef olives cover with water or beef stock, bring to the boil, simmer for 20 mins. Add the peas and continue simmering for another hour on very low flame till thickens.