Malta and its sister island Gozo possess something which very few olive-growing Mediterranean countries can lay claim to – lack of space!
While this doesn’t sound like a notable ingredient for success, it certainly adds to the distinct character of the olives; but we’ll get onto that later, firstly let’s look at these beautiful islands’ relationship with the fruit.
As you’d expect, olives are present in many of the traditional Maltese dishes, from the rich tomato sauces served with the local fish lampuki to the ubiquitous rabbit stews.
Recent archaeological finds have proved that the Romans were producing oil here 2,000 years ago and this has led to an exciting new era in Maltese olive oil.
The ‘Godfather’ of Maltese olive oil has to be Sam Cremona. His estate in the town of Wardija was echoing with the sound of the olive press and I caught up with him while he was extracting the good stuff from the latest batch delivered to him by a local grower.
“Come and see this,” he said as he walked towards his own olive grove, “you’ll only see this in Malta!” A white olive tree with fruit of such pearlescent beauty that it would have seemed a crime to pick them.
“They would make great oil, but we have so few that it simply would not be worth it.”
This tree holds the key to Sam’s success in gaining recognition for the country’s produce on the global scene. He was up against it, as the olives grown in Malta were generally of Puglian origin or recognised as another country’s olive, so the oil produced wouldn’t be permitted a ‘Maltese Olive Oil’ label in the eyes of those controlling food’s geographical origin, it would have to have been an ‘Italian Olive Oil produced in Malta’.
However, several serendipitous archaeological finds and lab tests later, it was proved that two varieties of olive are in fact indigenous to the islands – the white one Sam was showing me in his grove, and the bidni olive. So in 1997 production began on Maltese olive oil.
Now Sam produces up to four tonnes of oil per year from 140 tonnes of olives during the three-month season. That amounts to two tonnes of olives pressed by Sam each working day!
The oil is so good for several reasons, but mainly because of the small island I mentioned at the top of the article. You are never really far from the coast in Malta, this means the briny air from the deep waters of the surrounding Mediterranean blows its saltiness into all produce grown here. This gives everything a satisfying tang in its raw state – including the olives and the grapes and therefore the oil and the wine. But the small island also means transportation times are kept to an absolute minimum; ‘tree to press’ is a matter of hours or even minutes. Freshness is key.
Another fascinating nugget about this indigenous olive is the health benefits – so high in anti-oxidants is this olive that fruit fly eggs cannot survive. Researchers are finding more and more surprising benefits of this olive in the battle against many modern (and ancient) maladies.
To top the visit off, Sam’s elegant Essex-educated wife Matty – a cookbook writer herself – put on an amazing ‘snack’ to give me a taste of the oil. Okay, due to the massively generous portion sizes in Malta a snack roughly translates as ‘meal’. There were sweet, fried slices of pumpkin in oil and mint; olive pesto with the flesh mixed with chilli and fennel; beautiful Maltese bread; glorious sauvignon blanc; brined olives of all hues; and one thing that you just simply cannot match outside of warm climates – tomatoes, sweet and incredible.
Onto Ta Mena, on glorious sister island Gozo. According to owner Joe Spiteri, the olives and the grapes of the Maltese islands have the Goldilocks Factor – the temperate climate is just right, the soils, sunshine, rains are not too hot and not too cold, not too acidic not too alkali.
“I’m not just saying this, as many claim it, but Maltese islands’ olive oil is the best in the world.” Joe adds that this has been partly proved through official blind tastings held by olive oils ‘grandmasters’.
Joe then goes into an elaborate display in showing me how to taste olive oil in the correct fashion. He takes a glass and rubs it fiercely to warm it, he then adds a big slug of his own olive oil before again warming the glass – then he takes the lot down in one big ‘schwiff’.
‘This is so pure,” he tells me proudly, “so pure that you can do this with it,” before rubbing it into his farm-tanned hide.
Joe is sure the produce is of such high-quality that the only reason the oil (and Malta’s wines) are not more renowned is quite simply a form of prejudice. “We are from Gozo, the produce is Maltese, that can be the only reason we struggle to find an international market!”