Thursday, 14 July 2011

Maltese Cuisine

Being Maltese, I've grown up eating a lot of amazing Maltese food!  My Nan is always in the kitchen, and always has been, and I've grown up watching her cook and learning my culinary heritage.

Malta is a small archipelago in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.  It's closest neighbour is Sicily, 93km north across the Malta Channel.  Due to it's geographical location, it was, historically, an important shipping port and has seen many nations conquer and rule, including the British, the French, the Spanish, the Romans and the Arabs.  While Malta is now an independent republic, it's checkered history has left many influences on the native cuisine.  

The Maltese Cuisine centres around the fisherman's catch and fresh seasonal produce.  Some of Malts's produce includes aubergines, tomatoes, olives, capers, peppers, onions, potatoes, honey, figs, peaches, oranges, almonds, dates, pomegranates, pears, grapes, melons, grapefruit, apricot and nectarines.

Seafood found around Malta's Island include bass, stone bass, grouper, white bream, amber jack, dentex and red mullet.  Swordfish and tuna are caught around early to late autumn, followed by the Lampuki (dolphin fish).  Octopus and squid are also commonly found in the catch. 

Ħobż Malti, Maltese Bread, is purchased fresh from the baker daily and served with most meals.  It is technically a sourdough, but is similar to the Italian Pane di Casa. Ħobż Malti has a flakey, dark golden crust with a dense, soft and doughy centre.  The bread is eaten with gbejniet (sheep or goat’s cheese) and is used wipe the dinner plate clean, but the most common way is to eat hobz biz-zejt (bread with oil).

Pastry of all kinds is used to encase meat, fish, cheese, rice, pasta and vegetables.  The most well known pastry is the pastizzi; a light flakey filo like pastry encasing a ricotta cheese filling.  Another traditional pastizzi filling is one of peas, olives and anchovies.  

Traditionally, a slow cooking method was used to prepare most Maltese dishes.  This is evident in the number of stews and stuffed dishes present in the Maltese Cuisine.  Stuffat tal Fenek (stewed rabbit) is cooked in red wine, garlic, spices and herbs and served on spaghetti.  Qarabali (marrow) and brunġiel (aubergine) are stuffed with a mixture of minced meat, egg and herbs and baked on a bed of onions and potatoes.

Pasta is a staple and features heavily in the Maltese Cuisine.  It is used in soup, mixed with tomato sauces and baked but one of the most noteworthy pasta dishes is the traditional ravjul (ravioli).  Ravjul are semi-ciricle pockets of pasta filled with ricotta and fresh parsely.  Once cooked they are slathered in a simple, homemade tomato and garlic salsa and sprinkled with parmesan cheese. 

Soups are common, from the aljotta (fish soup) to the minestra (minestrone), a thick vegetable soup served with fresh or dried gbejniet (sheep or goat’s cheese).  Gbejniet  comes fresh, sundried, salt cured and peppered.  Once peppered, the cheese is stored in oil and the cheese in all its forms is used in soups, pasta dishes or eaten with bread.

While sweets do not feature heavily in the Maltese Cuisine, the kannoli, a crisp, fried pastry tube filled with ricotta, chocolate and candied fruit, is one of the more common treats.  Deep-fried date-filled pastries and almond macaroons are also popular. 

Thus concludes my introduction to the Maltese Cuisine.  Recipes to follow soon.

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