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This little island, set in the Mediterranean twixt Italy and North Africa, has a gorgeous climate, friendly residents, a rich history and architecture to match; but I wanted to know what the food is like, so off I went.

I’ve already written about the honey, olive oil and wine of Malta, but what are the principal dishes all about? What is the essence of Maltese cuisine and who is taking it to the next level?

Firstly let’s get one thing out of the way; the portion sizes here are epic… crazy huge and massively generous. I had to check that I wasn’t expected to eat the whole lot. Not exactly austerity and I certainly never condone wasting food, but that’s the culture and who am I to argue against that – especially with my appetite?

So let’s take you through a day chronologically; many Maltese, especially working men, often skip an early breakfast, choosing instead to go to drink sweet tea and eat one of the naughty pastizzis from any one of hundreds of shops offering them all over the islands.

I’m taken by my guide to ‘the best’ in Rabat, just below the walls of the incredibly atmospheric medieval city and ancient capital of Mdina – it’s called Crystal Palace, presumably not after the London footie team but some Moorish dwelling of old!

pastizzabest

Now, pastizzi is essentially a flaky pastry pasty similar to the Cornish variety, and either filled with peas or cheese. I had both… and a sweet tea. The pastry makes for lovely, naughty eating with a strain on the morning metabolism for someone used to porridge, but the tea launches energies back up again.

Mdina is a glorious walled city (and the most sought-after postcode in the country) with winding narrow streets, elaborate balconies, bougainvillea-clad facades and horse-drawn traps (tourist traps!); only residents of the city are allowed cars, so it’s quiet, safe, clean and – with the honeyed-stone reflecting the burning sun – lovely.

GennaroinMalta

After a gander around this UNESCO World Heritage Site, my thoughts were turning to lunch – apparently I was to have two. The first one of local produce created by chef Damian Ciappara at Commando in beautiful and sultry Mellieha in the north of the island next to where the fabulous Gennaro Contaldo was filming for Jamie’s Food Tube channel in the village square, and another, which I was dreading and will tell you all about in a mo’.

So off to Commando first, where Damian showcases the finest in Maltese produce; the amazing honey (read about my visit to the local hives), chutneys, vegetables and cheese.

Commandos

The cheese of Malta – Gbejna –  is a pretty ubiquitous affair. It is generally sheep’s milk, eaten fresh like a mozzarella or air-dried and often rolled in pepper and pickled in vinegar, herbs or left naked. The air-dried version has a nutty piquancy that is lovely. It is often mixed into a pasta or grated onto pizza. As an Englishman who has the choice of 100-odd cheeses in every cheesemonger and supermarket, I’m guessing the rule here is if you are going to do one thing, do it well; and they do. Here’s a picture of me milking a goat in Gozo to make a batch with a local farmer – goats as well, as sheep are used for the Gbejna.

deepfriedcheesecommandos

As a starter Damian had deep-fried his Gozo cheese for me and served it with a walnut dressing.  It was gorgeous, and held its flavor despite the hot oil bath. It oozed like a cooked cheese should.

Then I was dished up some chicken liver pate – a more strained and softer version than Brit offerings – served with a grape jam made with the fruits of the local winery. I’d drunk some of the wine the day before and you can read about why I think the Chardonnay was a revelation here.

chickenlivercommandos

 

They love dessert here in Malta – amazing considering the size of the other courses and Damian brought out something really special – a filo-baklava-type pastry filled with candied peel, clove flavouring, dates, tangerines and rosewater.  Deep-fried and served with honey ice-cream. Hot, fragrant, sweet, naughty, nice; I could have eaten three of them. It was full of wonderful Christmassy stuff that really finished off the meal in style, even though the temperature was in the hundreds outside.

dessert-commandos

Damian was a genuinely passionate host and was animated telling me about local produce and how contemporary chefs are making it more accessible to modern-thinking tourists’ palates.

Lunch #2!

An hour later and I’m staring down at my food hell, which is probably the closest thing to the national dish, so I had to be polite and get stuck in. To make matters worse there were two MASSIVE courses of this stuff. Rabbit. I just don’t like it, there is something lurking in the background that I find nasty, a leathery twang that leaves me super-thirsty.

Rabbittwo

A huge bowl of rabbit ragu with pappardelle pasta ribbons was first and I managed pretty well. The chef told me he had slow-cooked it with wine and herbs so I concentrated on those aspects of the flavour and managed half of it. It was all right – rabbit lovers would have gone bonkers for it – but then came the real challenge; slices of rabbit belly and what looked like a ribcage. I love you Malta, but I would struggle to find anything I would rather not have eaten; saying that, your natives and many tourists enjoy it and that’s a good thing.

Rabbit1

After a stroll around the quaint, colourful fishing village of Marsaxlokk, a bit of the very cool 5-D experience in Valletta, a pint in boozy legend Oliver Reed’s ‘last drink’ tavern close-by and I was ready for dinner.

Julian Sammut runs a string of independent restaurants around the former fishing harbor at Spinola Bay, and he has been named restaurateur of the year for his focus on Maltese foods. I was to meet him at Gululu, a restaurant on the waterfront with a focus on reinvigorating ‘peasant’ food for the burgeoning food scene – that’s not to say it’s poor man’s food by any means.

I was told to prepare for a lot of food – unsurprising considering the Maltese appetite – although I did offer the caveat that I wanted no more rabbit!

A fish soup, good enough to challenge any French bouillabaisse was first; rich and peppery like it should be. Then some lampuki or dolphin fish (no not dolphin, dolphin fish) served simply grilled or braised with tomatoes, olives and woody herbs. It’s meaty and reminded me of Dover sole a little. The fish itself is only found at this size in these waters, swimming between Malta and Gozo before heading west to American waters before it becomes the more familiar mahi-mahi. It’s fished by tempting it into the shade before dropping a net – clever stuff.

Lampuki

Julian is a lovely guy – we chatted about rugby and cricket as well as food, our shared passions. The guide sat patiently while we chewed the cud and four hours later we were nearly done. The generosity of spirit in these islands is really infectious, welcoming strangers until they become friends – there is a cheeky sense of humour as well as a commitment to great service, something becoming less of a priority in other Mediterranean countries.

juliansammut

Julian then asks chef to whip up some ad hoc local specialities, especially once he found out I loved anchovies. He produced local Gbenja stuffed with a super-salty anchovy and deep-fried. Words fail me – it was about as perfect as it gets.

I must take a moment to tell you about the remarkable and unique Maltese tomato paste – it’s astonishing. Sweet sun-dried tomatoes are bashed up for hours with a range of secret ingredients from rosemary to sugar. It is a reserve, will last for months and is simply glorious spread on some freshly baked bread – an astonishing and surprising thing which the Maltese love.

After leaving Julian’s lovely restaurant I walked back to the hotel in Valetta – lively, friendly and obsessed with Maltese classics. These are coming back into fashion with the younger generations who are fighting to keep them alive. I spoke to some younger people, asking them firstly about rabbit and nearly all of them said they tolerated it when their families sat down to eat it together rather than loving it, but all of them agreed it was worth saving….and so do I.

For more information about the culture and tourism on these islands go to the Visit Malta website.

Jim Tanfield

About the author

I'm Jamie's Website Editor and as well as overseeing my brilliantly creative team I am always looking at ways to eat more great food because I'm always hungry and a little bit greedy. Desert island ingredient: Chillies Favourite dish: Anything Mexican...or French...Japanese...don't make me choose! Favourite Non-Jamie Restaurant: Cinnamon Club

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  • Alex

    Haha, being young and Maltese, I’ve been wanting to try new ways of cooking rabbit rather than the traditional stew and always wondered why you didn’t have many rabbit recipes on your site! ;)

  • Andy

    And you can see why the problem of Obesity in Malta….

  • Michael Xuereb

    Loved Gennaro’s lamb recipe in Malta and I heard he was also in Gozo cooking up something tasty. I guess that would be uploaded soon. When I saw the dish with the toasted bread I thought it was ‘bigilla’ but then I realised it was chicken liver pate. Bigilla is a spreadable paste made from beans which I only found in Malta. Do try it the next time you’re here! The best bigilla I ever tasted was from a restaurant in Gozo called Wileġ. I rent holiday houses in Gozo and we always include a small tub of bigilla with the food pack. If anyone is planning a visit search us: Pellikan
    Holiday House.

  • Megan

    Alex – I’m young and Maltese as well, and I quite enjoy cooking the rabbit in the French style with Dijon mustard. You can find some pretty good recipes online by searching for “Dijon Rabbit.” I’m so shocked that Jamie does not enjoy Rabbit – it’s such a delicious and (when farm-raised) mild-tasting protein.

    • Alex

      Thanks megan! will surely try it out!

    • Josef B

      And also very healthy (high in protein, low in calories), and more environmental friendly (in terms of farming) than say beef. As long as the rabbit is grown in a decent environment and killed swiftly and humanely…

  • Anna-Maria Briffa

    I’m not such a big fan of rabbit but if it means that I gt to sit with all my family keep it coming! By the way the fishing village is Marsaxlokk not Marsaxloxx :p

    • Editor Jim

      Thanks Anna-Maria – amended accordingly.

  • Martin Busuttil

    I like rabbit. When I cook rabbit, I leave to marinate in a mixture of red wine, garlic, onions, spices, soya sauce and brown sugar for almost 24 hours, and gently fry it. Then I use some of the marinate to a wonderful gravy, and with the rest of it I do a sauce for the pasta.
    I always had good results, and who ever ate the rabbit the way I cook it, loved, and above all they are all still living. =D

  • James Catania

    With all due respect to your guide Jamie, he did not really give you a realistic picture.

    1) A lot of working men DO NOT skip an early breakfast and eat pastizzi, whilst a lot of Maltese people eat pastizzi they are for most of us the occasional sin

    2) Pastizzi are with Ricotta or Peas, not simply cheese, yes they are bad for your heart, yes, they are very oily. The only reason pastizzi are still popular is because a pastizz is 0.60c of a Euro and a small salad tub is about 4 Euros.

    3) No one in Malta deep fries gbejniet (apart form restaurants), they are usually mixed freshly with pasta dishes Mediterranean style

    4) The Tomato pastes and baked bread is the Tuna Roll which in Malta is the Traditional “Tuna Ftira” it is basically a flattish break with tomato paste, tuna, olives capers, garlic, whatever, there are a myriad of combinations again, only restaurants or cafeterias have a tendency to toast the bread. At home or work no one toasts his tuna ftira.

    5) I think you really missed out on traditional Maltese food, go to a local village, in a house with a well worn house wife and she can show you what exactly are Maltese traditional dishes

    Balbuljata, Ftira Tal-Patata, Incova u Bakkaljawwa, Pudina, Aljotta Tal-Lampuiki, Spinach, Anchovie and Lampuki pie, and the list goes on.

    Pastizzi and Rabbit are only “traditional” for tourists. When we want to go back to our roots, you have to look at war-time food and exigencies which stemmed all the traditional plates from the titanic effort of house wives making rations, navy food packs, the little produce which was available go as far as possible and taste decent enough to keep it down.

    • Maria Galea

      sorry its 30cents per each pastizzu ^_^

  • Ramon Casha

    Pastizzi are popular because they’re cheap, fast, filling and delicious – but yes they do pile on the calories. They’re popular as breakfast too – especially from workers who don’t have the time to prepare anything in the morning but can stop for pastizzi and tea or coffee at several small bars.

    The dolphin fish is also known as dorado – a name less likely to cause horror from tourists thinking they just ate a marine mammal.

    The tomato paste on fresh Maltese bread – especially the flattened Ftira – together with a variety of pickles, vegetables, tuna fish, cheese etc. is the basis of a variety of Maltese packed lunches.

    Deep-frying is not really traditional in Malta – with few exceptions, such as the “dates” pastries that you can buy at Valletta’s entrance.

    Pasta features heavily in traditional dishes – including mqarrun (baked macaroni), timpana, lasagne etc.

  • Frank Abela

    Jim, it’s gbejna, not gbenja, and for your readers it’s pronounced ‘gbayna’ with a soft ‘g’ as in George. Of course, the Maltese palate being what it is, one rarely finds a single gbejna in a dish, more usually several gbejniet. Deep fried gbejniet are a relatively new fad. They’re found in Malta’s most traditional dish – widow’s soup (Soppa ta’ l-armla) along with hard boiled eggs, vegetables and some seasoning. Sounds plain and boring, but actually very tasty.

    And there are different types of course. :)

  • j_cami

    i must say you nailed most of the things that make us maltese ;) …just to clarify the gozo cheese is called ġbejna and not gbenja… the rabbit and the
    lampuki are actual maltese home dishes, unlike the restaurant in
    mellieha where its dishes are inspired from maltese cuisine… and its
    true, portions here in malta are huge, especially pasta dishes…so you
    were quite right! … lovely post though! :) )

    • Editor Jim

      Cheers for your feedback. It’s a lovely place and I can’t wait to return.

      • Rebeckah Johnson

        I would highly reccomend for Jamies next return to visit a small family run business in Rabat, Malta called L’agape. booking is essential and they are the best restaurant on the island, if not the world! Me and my husband are keen foodies and have eaten all over the globe and are so lucky to have found this little gem. find them on tripadvisor and see for yourself. undeniably brilliant.

  • Shaun Borg

    A lovely description of the Maltese islands by a foreigner who is not perhaps accustomed to the climate and everyday life in Malta. It makes it much more interesting as it helps me to appreciate things which I tend to take for granted! Also, I guess rabbit is just one of those dishes which you are either completely nuts about, or you plain dislike it…I’m with the former camp!

    • Editor Jim

      Thanks Shaun. It was so welcoming….and hot. I could sense a real effort to breathe life into fading classics, I hope it’s not just for the tourists though.

  • Steve Zammit

    I totaly agree With James Catania, i have seen the pictures thats been taken and i asked myself this cant be our traditional maltese food. I am a Chef in Malta and i work hard on our culinary heritage to give it a boost to keep it up to date especially with the young generation, i ask you Jamie and your lecturer that came over for a couple of days pretending to be the Maltese food expert not to go out and share recipes which are not as its supposed to be under our culinary heritage and culture. If you are looking to know more then its quite easy, ask someone that is familiar with our culture, because according to what i have read you are being well miss guided.

    • Editor Jim

      Thanks for your interest Steve, this trip was organised by your lovely country’s very own Tourism Department and the itinerary was put together by them. Food and culture is always going to be a tricky one to nail: I can assure you, however, that all my guides were Maltese. I do point out that the chefs are putting a contemporary spin on traditional food, so hope it wasn’t too misleading. I hope to be back in April Steve and I would love to hear more from you on your traditional Maltese cooking. All the best

      • Steve Zammit

        Thank you Jim for your reply, I am aware that traditional foods are taking a spin by chefs not just in Malta but all over the world. I am working hard on having our Islands traditional foods reserved and I am pleased to introduce it to all the European countries and other parts of the world which I feel that in our culinary culture there is an interesting history allocated with it. I will be more then happy to help you with your next visit, as it is my main interest to register our true Maltese recipes as our own traditional Maltese food and allow our foreign visitors to experience the true Maltese culinary heritage. Best regards

  • Val Monte

    A BIG thank you J and the whole crew that visited us here in Malta. Maybe a few suggestions from the posts the next time you visit us… for episode 2 ;) warmest wishes..

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  • mark smith

    stop promoting malta you prat. theyre killing all our birds

  • Pauline Thompson

    There’s no need to be offensive Mark. Watch Chris Packham’s footage when he was in Malta only a few weeks ago, you will see that not all Maltese are the same. However, the government need to do alot more to educate its people.
    On a different not – beautifully written article. Love the pastizzi, bigilla (dried broad bean paste) hobz biz-zejt (crusty bread with olive oil, tuna etc), imqarret (deep fried fig rolls), brungell bit-tewm (poor man’s pate), gbejnett – love the fresh ones (ta’ l-ilma) and the peppered ones, the list is endless. Can’t wait for the next visit.

  • Mauveen Stone

    I moved to Malta in 1950 as my father was stationed out there with the Royal Navy, I worked as a ledger clerk in Barclays bank in Valletta and then met my husband who was in the Royal Marines we were married in Feb. 1953 and settled down in a little village called Zabbar out in the countryside our Maltese Landord and family were wonderful friendly people, as were the Maltese men and women who I worked with. we left that wondeful island in Dec. 1956 with two young children. We returned again in 1963 this time live in Gzira with 5 children all went to school. We used to get Maltese bread (hobz) straight from the local bakers ovens off a Maltese friend of ours and have chunks of it with olive oil, and tomato paste spread over it and sometimes tuna and my fav. was the hot puff pastries with the cheese inside at the outdoor cafe beside the Governors Palace and the most delicious coffee. Have been back a few times on holiday and will be going back again. I love the people and the culture and the islands. we used to visit the friends we made in their homes and ate whatever it was they ate. Fennek was a rabbit stew and delicious, and so was lampuki .

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