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WND – Back from Malta

January 8, 2009

thyme

When you go to visit someone for the first time you invariably end up drifting towards their bookshelves to check out what they read, or at least I do.  When I go a new country I like to meander around a grocery store for pretty much the same reason.  Admittedly this is possibly my bias talking, but I think that food and language are the two best ways to learn about another culture.

I don’t know that finding out that the French seem to like peanut flavored snack foods (like cheetos, but fake-peanut flavored instead of fake-cheese flavored) tells me anything terribly insightful about the French character, other than that it’s clearly proof that even the French can make culinary missteps.  On the other hand, I do think that the fact that you can find instant blancmange in a Maltese grocery store is deeply indicative of something.

I went to Malta for the first time this Christmas (to visit my parents who are sometime residents).  And, it’s wonderful.  It’s weird and quirky and jam packed with history in every crevice, field, alleyway and corner which is probably why my father likes it so much.

zebbug-church-lanterns

The Maltese, frankly, have an embarrassment of history to choose from when it comes to constructing their cultural heritage.  Anyone who was anyone in the history of the Mediterranean has stopped by Malta for a chat and a spot of invasion – the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Goths, the Vandals, Byzantium, an offshoot of the Abbasid Caliphate, the Normans, the Angevins, the Kingdom of Sicily, the House of Aragon who gave it to the Knights of St. John who held on to it from 1530 until the Napoleonic invasion in 1798 whereupon they slunk away with their tails between their legs, Napoleon briefly and then the English enduringly, and last but not least the actual  native Maltese.

The Emirs of Ifriqiya donated Arabic to the island in the 900s and gave Malta the only Semitic official language of the European Union.  Apparently during WWII Mussolini liked to claim that Maltese was just a dialect of Italian, from which I can only assume that he’d never actually heard it.  Internet research tells me that modern Maltese is about 50% Italian/Sicilian, 30+% derived from a Sicilian Arabic dialect, and the rest is a hodge-podge of French, English and a couple of other things.  I think the only reason I knew Maltese was a European language when I first heard it was because I was on an Air Malta flight heading to Malta and it seemed like a logical deduction.

The Knights Hospitaller (or more impressively, the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta) donated fortifications, some more fortifications, and then some walls around the fortifications, a lot of churches and several suspiciously nice houses for a group of guys who were supposed to have taken a vow of poverty.  They also brought in lots and lots of money and Italian artisans to build things for the greater glory of God (and if it was quite luxurious for his earthly knights, well I’m sure that was just a nice perk).

ricasoli-fort-ricasoli-entry-gateThe English who arrived in 1799 and didn’t leave until 1964 donated a naval base and cuisine.  I’m pretty sure the Maltese didn’t get the better end of that deal.  I’m as fond of fish & chips as the next girl, but it’s not really what I expect to eat on a Mediterranean island.  I found that the oddest thing about Malta was how un-Mediterranean it often felt for an island that’s 90 km off the coast of Sicily.  Olive oil, garlic, and tomatoes don’t seem to be the base ingredients of life on Malta, and I found that I kept tripping over the fact that I thought that they should be.

You don’t actually see all that much Maltese food on menus.  You find pastizzi in most cafes, which is a pastry stuffed with a savory filling.  They come in two varieties – ricotta, and mushy pea.  The latter has to be something that we can thank the British for.  I saw a lot of octopus on menus, although oddly not as much fish as I would have expected from a country which is after all a not terribly large island.  I had bigilla, which is a white bean paste, and local goat cheeses on salad plates – both of which were quite tasty.  And, I finally got my chance to try a honey ring the last day I was there, but overall there was less available that was distinctively Maltese than I was expecting.

st-julians-luzzu

My parents say that you’ll often get Maltese food if you go to dinner at someone’s house, and that it is very good when you do.  I flew home a day too early to have my chance to try timpana at the New Year’s Dinner my parents were invited to.  It is apparently the quintessential Maltese dish, made of noodles moistened with a tomato meat sauce, bound together with egg and then baked in a pastry shell.  I’m a fan of starch wrapped in starch (sweet potato tempura sushi is one of my favorite things to order), and I’m sorry I missed this.

Neither the Maltese language nor the food on Malta were at all what I was expecting.  That being said, in their unexpectedness I think they are representative of the history of Malta and the impact the various cultures that have ruled Malta have had on the island.  And, in that respect they are a great window on Malta.

Beef Carbonnade
Mashed Potatoes
Broccoli

Beef Carbonnade
I came home from sunny Malta to be greeted by a snow storm in Boston.  I went out to buy groceries and champagne and got halfway through my errands and considered that we should really just have ordered Chinese food.  This Wednesday Boston favored us with what is euphemistically called ‘wintry mix’, which really means that everyone should stay home and curl up under a blanket and drink hot chocolate rather than go outside.  However, for those of us who had to get up and go to work anyway, stew seemed like an earned treat at the end of the day.

Recipe previously given:  Birthday Stew

stew-melange2

Mashed Potatoes
I have a fantasy that some day I will make mashed potatoes and I will have enough left over to make mashed potato pancakes later in the week.  I peeled 5lb of potatoes, I won’t tell you how much butter I used to mash them, and I have just enough left over to make myself one or two small mashed potato pancakes assuming my roommate doesn’t eat the leftovers for lunch.

potato-peels

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3 comments

  1. I’m not sure what it says about me that I have now seen you 4 times in the 6 days that we’ve both been back from our respective Christmases, but it took reading this post to make me realise that I never asked you how your vacation was, or how Malta was. Especially since I know I talked about *my* trip on several occasions, one of which was even after you asked me about it. Clearly you are a better/better-mannered friend than I am. But having said that, I did thoroughly enjoy reading the answer to the question I forgot to ask.


  2. Instant blancmange…Hmmm, surely another legacy of the British. I am thankful to say I have never had this offered in a Maltese home, but I will ask around.


  3. Your write up of the trip to Malta was so interesting. I do love all the recipes – not that I cook that much but do love having them.



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