A Taste of Malta
Ker & Downey’s Nicole Porto travels to the land of sun and sea to sample its rich culinary scene.
South of Sicily and north of Libya, the country of Malta sits at a fascinating crossroads of history and culture. Early settlers left their mysterious Neolithic temples and tombs; invading Arabs brought their language; St. Paul ushered in Christianity, and France sent Napoleon. That prompted the Maltese to request the assistance of the British, who stuck around until the 20th century. Now Malta is its own republic, but still preserves the vestiges of these cultures.
For all this foreign influence, the Maltese are fiercely proud of their unique island home. Each village has its own cathedral (it is said there are 365 churches — one for each day of the year), its own language peculiarities, and its own preferences for what to include in the ricotta pies, known as torta tal irkotta. For instance, one village may put broad beans in theirs, while the next village may add golden raisins — a serious matter of importance. Notably, none of these villages are more than 10 minutes away from each other.
The influx of settlers, invaders, conquerors, saints and saviors has left its imprint on many things in Malta, but none more obvious than in the island's culinary traditions. Take ftira, the name for Malta’s ubiquitous sandwich, as well as the semi-flat bread that accompanies it. This sourdough is found on every Maltese table. A typical snack would be cubes of bread slathered with a thick, sweet tomato kunserva, drizzled with olive oil and finished with fresh marjoram. A heartier meal consists of the same bread, kunserva and olive oil, but made into a sandwich with pickled onions, capers, olives and other fresh vegetables and eaten with gbejna, a kind of cured sheep’s milk cheese that can be either plain or peppered. These dishes are simple, but with ingredients so fresh, it’s no wonder that every bite is a revelation.
The opportunity to experience not only the flavors of Malta, but also the history behind each dish is the highlight of any visit to the island. Malta’s cooking classes truly are set apart from the rest of the world. They include visits to the actual farms or gardens where the ingredients are sourced, as well as instructors who care about how to make traditional foods and share why those foods are important to the country.
Any culinary tour must include a cup of famed Maltese coffee. It's a special treat to share a cup with someone like Chef George Borg, who hosts his own cooking show and who is considered a top influencer in Malta’s vibrant foodie scene. To Chef Borg, coffee is the perfect example of Maltese resilience, since for much of its history Malta was under some form of attack or rule. The Maltese people learned to reserve their best ingredients for those in charge, so something as simple as a cup of coffee became a lesson in survival and creativity. Pirates and invaders were supplied with the good coffee, made with just coffee beans, while the local people watered down their own cups of joe with less expensive spices. The result today is an exceptionally delicious cup that bears a closer resemblance to Arabic coffee, fragrant with cloves, anise, cinnamon and cardamom.
Meeting the locals as they go about their daily routine offers not only the flavor of daily life, but savory dishes as well. Indeed, food forges memories, collects histories and creates lasting bonds. It is moments like these that make up a truly unforgettable experience in Malta.
CRAFT YOUR CULINARY TOUR
Cooking classes aren’t the only way to experience the flavors of Malta. Round out your custom journey with these delicious diversions.
- Visit a tiny bakery where the same kind of bread has been baked every day for generations. Just out of the oven and spread with butter and salt, it's the perfect post-breakfast snack before a day of discovery in Valletta.
- Head to the farm of Malta’s “godfather of olive oil,” where olive oil fresh from the press awaits sampling.
- Visit a local sheep farm to taste all three iterations of the gbejna: fresh, sun dried and peppered. There’s no better start to a farm-fresh lunch in the Maltese countryside, armed with a few “cheeselets” (little rounds of gbejna).
Pro Tip! There’s a private beach that only locals go to. After visiting the salt flats, ask the driver to take you to the end of the coastal road and hike down a path to get to a secret beach in a narrow inlet. If you go when school is in, you’ll have the whole thing to yourself. - Nicole Porto, Luxury Travel Expert