A tiny island in the middle of the Mediterranean, Malta has seen a lot of cultures and civilisations come and go down the years, from Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Romans, through Arabs and crusaders, to Napoleon’s French Empire and Queen Victoria’s British one, until they finally achieved independent self rule in 1964. Each left their mark on the island’s culture and, thus, on its cuisine, creating something that is a mix of elements from far and wide. I’ve mentioned before our need to take a holiday during the dreary, cold and wet early months of the year and this year that trip was to Malta. Just as in Naples and Bruges, this allowed the perfect chance to sample the food of another culture.
The nature of Malta as a small island meant that there was little possibility of people settling there during the hunter-gatherer era, but as soon as farming developed people began to settle there and the island has some of the best preserved evidence of neolithic life of anywhere in Europe. Temples and catacombs from thousands of years ago were some of the high points of our trip. Fortunately, such a strong early archaeological record gives us a pretty good sense of what Malta’s Stone Age population were eating. The National Archaeological Museum even contains fossilised examples of the kinds of beans and grains that would have formed a core part of their diet, along with seashells and carvings of goats and pigs that also point towards certain dietary elements that continue to this day.
The various early civilisations that clashed over the strategic significance of the island’s position between Africa, Europe and the Middle East brought their own culinary innovations. The Phoenicians introduced grape vines and made the first Maltese wines, the Romans (as they did in Britain) brought rabbits with them – Struffat tal-Fenek, a kind of rabbit stew, remains a particularly popular local dish – while (as in Spain) Arabic rule brought innovations in engineering and irrigation and the introduction of oranges and lemons. The legacy of pre-crusades Arabic rule in Malta has also left its mark on the language, which sounds like nothing else in Europe to the extent that it was fortunate for us that English is an official language there as well.
Much the biggest culinary influence, however, comes from Southern Italy, and Sicily in particular, which is the nearest land mass to Malta. The Norman rulers of Sicily took control of Malta from the Arabs in the 11th and 12th centuries and ruled the island for over four hundred years until it was given to the crusading order of the Knights Hospitaller (the Knights of Malta). Seafood, pasta and seafood pasta are very much the order of the day in Malta, then, much like this plate of black squiggles and tentacles that Professor Plum ate on the seafront in Vittoriosa.
The Maltese ravjul (pasta parcels stuffed with ricotta-style sheep’s cheese) are obviously similar to the Sicilian and Sardinian form of ravioli and, dating back to Sicilian rule over Malta, are probably one of the earlier forms of stuffed pasta (Tuscan and Northern Italian ravioli are not mentioned until the 14th century).
The popularity of ravioli-style stuffed pasta in Maltese cuisine points to the principal observation that I have to make about food in Malta after spending a week there: The one unifying element of virtually all popular Maltese food is a love of things stuffed inside other things. Whether it’s the rabbit loin wrapped in guanciale at the fancy bistro where we had dinner or the beef olives for lunch, the ravioli or the stuffed pastries and cannoli that are the island’s favourite sweets, Malta really can’t get enough of eating one food inside another. Really, then, the ultimate Maltese feast would surely involve every ingredient inside or wrapped around every other one.
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