by Matthew Fort, The Telegraph, March 18, 2018
You might think of gallant Malta (awarded the George Cross in 1940), historical Malta (remembering the Knights of St John and the Great Siege of 1565), naval Malta (in recognition of the island’s deepwater ports), or even Game of Thrones Malta (some of the epic’s most memorable scenes were filmed there). But culinary Malta (with a gastronomic capital)? Surely not.
Food may not be the first thing that springs to mind when someone suggests Malta as a holiday destination – but for a tiny island measuring just over 16 miles (26km) long and 14 miles (23km) wide, with a population of around 450,000, Malta packs a weighty culinary punch. Its name probably derives from the Greek word “meli”, meaning honey (to this day, one of the island’s treasured products).
Because of its strategic position at the marine crossroads of the Mediterranean, its cuisine has been moulded by waves of colonisers, among them Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Sicilians and the Knights of St John, as well as we British. Walk around the streets of Valletta today, and you can’t escape the signs of military struggle – the bastions, battlements, keeps and corbelling that kept invaders out, all built in the island’s distinctive honey-cream sandstone.
From Auberge de Castille, now the office of the prime minister, to Auberge de Provence in Republic Street and Auberge d’Italie in Merchants Street, the names of the buildings reflect the island’s cosmopolitan past. They manage to be both modest and imposing at the same time – and they appear to be in pristine condition, no doubt helped by the fact that Valletta is one of the 2018 European Capitals of Culture.
Malta’s culinary culture is an extension of its chequered history. Dishes and ingredients point north, south, east and west. There is pasta from Italy – hardly surprising, given the country’s proximity. But then there is also qassatat, a pie that looks like a small, round pastry bomb, with a distinctly Arabic name; and pastizz, a flaky pastry shaped like an almond, which sounds quite Italian. Both, it seems, can be stuffed with ricotta (also Italian) and/or mushed peas that come from… well, who knows?
The island boasts a fulsome range of sweet as well as savoury pastries, such as qagħaq tal-għasel (honey rings), torta tal-lewz (almond cake), qagħaq tal-ħmira (a soft, sweet bagel-shaped cake), imqaret (a deep-fried, diamond-shaped date pastry) and kannoli tal-irkotta (deep-fried pastry tubes filled with ricotta). Many of these pastries show how profound the Arab influence has been on the cooking of much of the Mediterranean.
Some have a drift of spice in them that harks back to the days when the spice traders would stop off at Malta on their way back to Genoa and Venice. You might expect a shoal of fish dishes, given that Malta is surrounded by the pristine waters of the Med, but fish wasn’t favoured by the Knights of St John – except, of course, on Fridays and holy days.
They preferred meat: kid, lamb, pig and rabbit in particular. In fact, if Malta can be said to have a national dish, it is Maltese rabbit. It comes in two forms, one fried – fenek moqli – and the other braised or stewed – stuffat tal-fenek. As with most Mediterranean dishes, every household and restaurant has its own particular variation on the basic combination of rabbit, tomatoes, onions, garlic and white wine. One version uses marrowfat peas, which presumably points to the recent British influence.
While there is plenty of traditional food still to be found, both in restaurants and in Maltese homes, you can’t say the Maltese culinary scene is stuck in the past. There are few more dependable signs that a place is on the up than the number of ambitious restaurants opening up. These are some of my favourites.
Seven great Maltese food finds
1. San Niklaw Winery
This, one of Malta’s finest wineries, has no restaurant but teams up with the crew from Rock Salt to serve sophisticated food in the tasting room. The chef at Rock Salt, Tor Holmedal, is Norwegian, and combines a Scandinavian clarity with classic techniques to create modern dishes based on global ingredients.
There was foie gras mousse on crisp brioche with apple, apple juice and toasted pumpkin seeds; Scottish scallop with pear, dusted with powdered dill and champagne butter sauce studded with salmon eggs; lobster tails and lobster croquettes with cauliflower purée and lobster bisque; and duck breast with Jerusalem artichoke purée, salsify, beetroot and black truffle.
The winery is owned and run by the Cauchi family. John Cauchi must one of the few paediatric surgeons in the world also making wines, in this case Contrada ta Fanġu (syrah), Despatch (sangiovese), Kappella San Nikola (mourvedre) and Neptunus (vermentino), all of which have serious heft, balance and subtlety.
San Niklaw Estate, Triq Strejnu, Zejtun (00356 7964 5529; sanniklaw.com). By appointment only.
Rock Salt, Telghet San Giljan, St Julian’s (00356 2133 6226; shoprocksalt.com).
2. Hammett's at Cugo Gran Macina
Hammett’s occupies the ground floor of a building used for refitting ships in the 16th century – now a luxurious boutique hotel. The restaurant looks out over the harbour in the fortified town of Senglea. The interior is the model of modern cool and manages to be both smart and relaxed.
It wasn’t fully open when I visited, so the menu – “fish and chips” (carpaccio of amberjack with peas, lime mayonnaise and potato puffs); lemon granita; lamb rump with couscous, aubergine, carrot and red wine jus – had some of the hesitancy I’d expect of a kitchen that wasn’t at full stretch yet. However, there was enough about the dishes I ate, the fish and chips especially, which suggested that in future the food would be as sophisticated as the interior.
Macina, Triq il-31 ta’ Marzu, Senglea (00356 7945 1513; cugogranmalta.com).
The dining room here is as sleek as a stealth bomber, with slate-grey walls, black-and-white marble flooring, and tables topped with streaked marble. Andrew Borg, the restaurant’s chef, had previously been chef/patron of the highly-rated Black Pig restaurant, also in Valletta. His menu shows a fine awareness of contemporary culinary tropes, but brings to them a highly individual sensibility.
Among the most successful dishes was a classic soft, sexy foie-gras parfait with some rabbit liver, bolstered by Williams pear and a brilliantly effective ravigote sauce (vegetable or meat broth with herbs). Braised spelt with mussels, buttered leeks, smoked haddock and avruga caviar proved to be a rich and surprisingly effective combination. Smoked eel might not be the first thing you’d think of pairing with suckling pig, but with beetroot as a bridge between the two it was subtle and persuasive. Hazelnut millefeuille with milk chocolate ice cream was an absurdly fulsome and enjoyable end.
Casa Ellul, 81 Old Theatre Street, Valletta (00356 2122 4821; risette.com.mt).
As the name suggests, the restaurant has a spectacular view over the harbour. The dining room has the “smooth chic” feel that’s in keeping with the times, and the menu has a similar contemporary sheen aimed at the international traveller – venison tartar; raviolacci (large ravioli stuffed with minced prawn and scallop); porkcheek with apple purée and cranberry-infused jus; and pistachio crème brûlée. There is something seductive about the latter, the rime of caramel giving way to the creamy softness underneath in a dish that blends comfortable memories of home with the waft of somewhere exotic.
267 St Ursula Street, Valletta (00356 7987 7980; panorama.com.mt).
The restaurant takes its moniker from the nickname of the chef/proprietor, Jonathan Brincat, which is lightly outlined on a board above the door, obscuring the name of the previous occupants – Xmunborg & Sons, bakers and confectioners. This neatly pays homage to Valletta’s past, as well as making a statement about its future, and Brincat’s cooking has a parallel respect for past and present. It reflects the multiple influences that help make Malta so culturally curious.
Dotted around the menu you’ll find pasta, risotto, Cantabrian anchovies, preserved lemons, salt-baked beetroot, Israeli couscous and octopus tagine, triple-cooked chips and sticky date pudding, as well as two rabbit dishes and guanciale (cured pork), fried with slow-cooked rabbit loin, roasted vegetables and onion gravy. Noni is distinctly relaxed, and full of raffish delight and Mediterranean charm.
211 Republic Street, Valletta (00356 2122 1441; noni.com.mt).
6. Townhouse No 3
In Rabat, hard by the exquisite walled town of Mdina, Malcolm Bartolo runs a brilliant operation celebrating everything that is Maltese: a broad bean paste to spread on bread; sparkling cured swordfish in wafer-thin slices with peeled raw prawns, fennel, prawn mayonnaise and edible flowers; plump, silky ravioli filled with mushrooms; succulent pork collar that had been cured in sugar and steamed for eight hours, with a sweetish local sausage.
Our lunch was finished off with beignets as fragile as powder puffs, filled with sweet ricotta flecked with shards of dark chocolate. This was dazzling cooking. Bartolo takes as much care with sourcing his wines as he does his ingredients, with similarly spectacular results.
No 3 and No 4 Republic Street, Rabat (00356 7900 4123).
7. Ta' Qali Market
Twice a week a farmers’ market operates in a sprawling development, not far from Mdina, which used to be an RAF base. The stalls are rigorously policed to make sure only genuine smallholders have stalls. It is a showcase for scintillating local produce – purple aubergines, violet aubergines, small, cigar-shaped aubergines; fennel bulbs the size of small cannon balls; creamy cauliflowers the size of large ones; lemons, leeks, peppers the size of bricks; clusters of onions; tomatoes of every size; lettuces, courgettes, spiky artichokes and chard with rainbow stalks.
Contemplating this shimmering sea of vegetables sets the mouth watering – but it’s not all vegetarian. There are a few stalls selling pork and chicken eggs, too. In short, temptation is all around. It’s not the place to go just before you head off to catch your plane home.
Ta’ Qali Crafts Village, Ta’ Qali. Open Tuesdays 4pm-7pm, Saturdays 9am-5pm.