Food in Malta | An Insider's Take from Chef Josef Baldacchino
The food in Malta is delicious and unique, and Maltese chef Josef Baldacchino shares the cuisine's history and influences in this insightful interview. Josef chose his career at the young age of 11 after being inspired by his grandmother's cooking. One of the world's smallest countries at 122 square miles, the island nation is a tight-knit community, with family and food at the center.
Paradoxically, Malta's strategic location in the Mediterranean has meant that it has been conquered by a succession of outsiders, all of whom left their mark culturally over thousands of years: Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Sicilians, Spanish, the Knights of St. John, French, and British.
One of the most enduring legacies of Malta's countless encounters with other cultures is the impact of Christianity, said to have been brought to the island by St. Paul in 60 A.D., when he was shipwrecked while on his way to Rome. Today, Roman Catholicism is the state religion and the basis for many of Malta's culinary traditions.
Like many of us, Josef developed a keener appreciation of his own heritage through his experiences abroad--while cheffing in Sweden, he had an epiphany about the connection between food and identity. Since then, he has focused his career on exploring Malta's culinary history, often collaborating with Heritage Malta, the national agency for museums, conservation practice and cultural heritage. Pull up a chair and enjoy Josef's banquet of tasty morsels of Malta's culture!
Island Nation is a Tight-Knit Community
Meg: Where on Malta are you from?
Josef: I am from a village called Kirkop, which is situated on the south-west of Malta. Archaeological remains found here can be traced back to prehistoric times, thus as its motto implies 'Parva non Ineres' it is a small village but it is never empty. Being a quiet, rural village, it offers a peaceful lifestyle full of typical cultural elements - some of which have been long forgotten in other parts of the island where 'progress' has challenged the traditional aspects of life.
I started my education in the village school until the age of five, when I was then enrolled in Stella Maris School in another village called Balzan. I also attended for my Catechism classes at the local branch of the Society of Christian Doctrine. Apart from the religious elements, we learned various crafts along the way such as gardening, fishing, statue-making, olive picking and much more, including cooking. During my childhood, I spent a lot of time at my grandparent's house, where I loved watching grandma cooking in her kitchen the delicious food I still enjoy eating till today - pies, soups, stews, fresh pasta--name it and it will be the best ever! Sometimes I assisted grandpa on his farm taking care of the rabbits, chicken, turkeys & pigeons as well as his crops. All these childhood experiences were fundamental in developing a passion for the local produce & cooking.
Food As Identity
When I was 11 years old, students in Malta had to choose the subjects for their future studies. At that age I honestly had no idea what I should choose, but cheffing was a natural choice since I was surrounded with so many culinary influences around me. Therefore, once I finishing my obligatory education I enrolled at the Institute of Tourism Studies (ITS) for a Diploma in Culinary Arts. With the help of the lecturers and their friendly approach, I've managed to build a good base for my future.
Since then I had the opportunity to take part in a number of culinary competitions as well as work in different styles of restaurants & hotels, both in Malta and abroad, in England and Sweden. Engaging with a vast array of cultures allowed me to expand my knowledge beyond the island mentality I was accustomed to in my youth; and since then traveling has become my main hobby. Due to the small size of the island, importation is part of our daily living; however during my experiences abroad I noticed the importance local produce was given. It was whilst working at 'Restaurang 28+' (a Michelin Stared Restaurant in Gothenberg) where I was struck by the concept of food as part of the identity of the country.
Read: Want to learn other aspects of Maltese culture? Check out the Gozo salt pans, a geological delight!
Exploring Authenticity of Food in Malta
Unfortunately, due to several health issues which developed abruptly, my culinary career was temporarily suspended and I had to come back home for medical attention, definitely one of my darkest moments which I managed to recover from with the constant support of my family. At the time, since I was unable to continue my daily culinary duties, I took this opportunity to further my studies with a B.A Degree in Tourism Studies at the University of Malta.
Before I left Malta, no place I worked in really considered Maltese food as a true option. Thus at University, with the guidance of the lecturers at the Institute of Tourism, Travel & Culture, as well as my dissertation tutor Dr. Paulino Schembri, I explored the authenticity of Maltese food served in Maltese restaurants and this was definitely a breakthrough in the way I looked at ethnic food. In my mind, food in Malta and food culture has now evolved from a tangible commodity, into an expressive concept surrounded by a million other questions, which still keeps me thinking! Since then I have been collaborating with Heritage Malta on rediscovering and interpreting food from Maltese history.
Maltese Street Food
Meg: What are some your earliest memories of food?
Josef: Kirkop offered me the possibility to experience characteristics of the Maltese lifestyle similar to that of previous generations, Often, these characteristics are related to what is known as "Il-Ħanut tat-Triq" (street shops); many of which are in fact linked to food:
- 'Tal-Kappar' - the caper seller whom I remember was a woman with a big bucket on a pushchair, going around the village selling capers.
- 'Tal-Ħut' - the fishmonger who still comes to the village selling fresh fish & seafood in his van.
- 'Tal-Ħobż' – back in the days, Kirkop had its own baker. Unfortunately I did not get the opportunity to experience this as it closed much before I was born. Several elderly women passionately expressed the amazing smell it used to emit not just of the bread itself, but also the food they used to cook in it. However I do remember numerous bread vendors coming to the village early in the morning around 5.30 am; with their white van, honking their horn on every corner, selling a selection of warm freshly-baked bread.
- 'Tal-Pasti' & 'Tal-Ġelat' - two different vendors, one selling cakes and the other selling Ice-cream. Probably no explanation needed on why a young child gets attracted to these vendors!
Josef's Favorite Food in Malta
What I can elaborate on is my old favourite food in Malta:
- A cup of mixed vanilla & chocolate ice cream with fruit on the bottom of the cup; topped with crushed peanuts, strawberry jam and coloured vermicelli.
- Coconut & Strawberry Jelly Cake.
In my opinion, these street vendors are an essential part of the village life and they still bring such a vibrant atmosphere within the community; all with their particular sounds, smells and, of course, the product itself. However, if I had to pick only one memory which really has a personal emotion attached to it, I would have to pick "Ravjul ta l-Irkotta" (Irkotta Ravioli). Kirkop is synonymous with two important products:
- Ġbejniet - Sheep and/or goat cheeslets, served either fresh or dried.
- Irkotta - similar to the Italian ricotta, but made with full milk not with the whey. It is more crumbly then ricotta and provides a more filling texture.
The reason I picked this dish is because I always remember grandma preparing these delicious ravioli. Unlike the ones you'd find in restaurants & shops today, they have a thick pastry which gave them an extra authentic texture. Once you bite into them, your mouth will fill up with an abundant amount of irkotta mixed with a bit of chopped parsley & freshly grated pepper. They are served with a humble spoon of tomato & garlic sauce or a drizzle of Extra Virgin Olive Oil. This dish is part of my identity. It is part of the cultural heritage of my village, my family and myself. Anywhere I go to, this is a dish which travels with me.
Food in Malta | Culture
Meg: What is the role of food in Maltese culture?
Josef: Food is a very particular subject. Apart from the tangible element that we crave; in relation to the Maltese culture, it has a very strong symbolic and ritual nature. First and foremost, any occasion we celebrate there is always food involved in it – and it doesn’t have to be a special festive celebration.
I don’t know whether the following practice is common in America; but from a humoristic perspective, food and culture are linked together not necessarily for consumption purposes. In Malta this is evident when someone quits the place-of-work. In almost every kitchen I’ve worked in on the Island, we usually smash an egg on the head of the person leaving, followed by a meal in the evening as a celebration between ex-colleagues. Egg-throwing practice used to be popular as well during Carnival when I was younger.
Moreover, from a political point-of-view, the ‘Sette Giugnio’ commemoration, related to the uprising of the Maltese against the British presence on the Island, was also somehow linked to food – a number of protests happened at the time due to the ever-increasing cost of living and scarcity of food due to limited imports. However the last straw happened on June 7th 1919 when the price of the most staple commodity was increased drastically – flour! Unfortunately four men died during the uprising, whom they are still remembered every year during this national holiday.
Honoring Traditional Food in Malta
In addition, when it comes to the traditional occasions such as Christmas, Easter and any other similar event, there is always a dish which pops up in relation to the specific event. Whilst I understand that the modern lifestyle breaks the concept of traditionality, and the economic forces of demand vs supply determine what we find in our shops today; I believe that it would be a pity if these food-related customs are put aside simply for economic purposes.
I believe that whist embracing the modern luxury of fruit & veg out of their natural season, we should also respect the work and struggle of our ancestors. At this point a quote from the famous American chef Anthony Bourdain comes to mind: “When people offer a stranger food they are telling you the story of what they love; and the story often is the struggle to make a lot out of very little”. I believe that by removing these customs, we wouldn’t be respecting our own story and our own identity.
Read: Good Friday is a significant holiday to the people of Malta. Learn more about the elaborate Good Friday procession.
Historic Influences on Food in Malta
Meg: What are some of the historic influences on the food in Malta, and can you give some context for these influences?
Josef: Malta is a country which according to history had its first people come from Sicily. Over the years different people invaded the Islands and established their own rules and culture. Therefore our culture is a mix of adoption and adaption from various influences. Moreover, thanks to sea connectivity, we kept contact with Sicily and other kingdoms all over the Mediterranean. This is also reflected in our language and the food in Malta, especially through the ingredients we use.
Chocolate was introduced in Malta during the time of the Knights, probably through the Spanish Knights. Coffee, which was also introduced in the same period, came through Muslim slaves. On the other hand, beer was surely found in Malta before the British came here, but wine was the main beverage. What the British did was develop a beer culture which is still popular till today.
On a more complex note, we can argue whether the mulled wine we serve during Christmas today was a Roman Empire inheritance, or whether it's a modern commercial introduction. It would be interesting if we came up with a clear answer, but at this point I believe it does not exist. In the past we had a similar beverage known as Ċumnata, which was given to pregnant women during birth – this could be a derivative.
Regardless, the uniqueness through the vast historical influence should be used as an example to promote peace & collaboration, and not as an asset to divide one culture from another. Researching the past along with the study of our present generation should go hand-in-hand in order to understand ourselves better."
Fish in the Maltese Diet
Meg: I visited Marsaxlokk and its fish market when I was in Malta. Can you describe the role of fish in the Maltese diet and also describe a couple of traditional Maltese fish recipes?
Josef: I really love the Sunday market in Marsaxlokk, and the colourful fish displays. When I was Head Chef in a local fish restaurant, I occasionally went for a visit on my way to work. A nice story I remember from five-six years ago involves a monstrous looking Monkfish over 125cm long. Back then Monkfish was not as popular at it has become today. It was so fresh that it had seaweed still stuck to it; but due to its bizarre shape and big head, no one seemed to want it. When my boss saw me entering the restaurant with this strange-looking creature he started calling me all sort of names. Luckily, one of our regular guests who happened to be also a big fish connoisseur came in exactly at the same time and booked it immediately. Apparently he had eaten it abroad and since then could not find it anywhere else.
When it comes to the Maltese diet, oddly enough fish is not as popular as one might expect on an island. It has always been associated as an inferior ingredient to meat, especially due to the religious influence and association with penitence, lent and other sacrificial occasions. A good example of this stated by several pastizzara (the people who make our delicious pastizzi – usually served with Irkotta or peas), is that spinach & anchovy pastizzi are popular mainly during the Holy Week. Nonetheless, this does not mean that Maltese people do not eat fish or shellfish. Some popular fish include:
- Lampuki (Dolphin Fish/Mahi Mahi) - probably the first fish which pops to mind related to food in Malta. Popularly served either fried with some tomato & caper sauce and a bed of green bell peppers, onions & olives; or else in a pie.
- Swordfish steaks - very popular grilled or baked with some white wine & herbs.
- Tuna steaks - grilled or fried and served with 'kapunata' (a similar mix to the French ratatouille),
- Octopus & Cuttlefish – stewed in a rich Provençale style sauce or fried in Olive oil & Garlic then finished with a dash white wine & chopped fresh parsley.
- Calamari - usually stuffed with bread or rice along with other aromatics such as herbs & olives. These are then boiled or stewed accordingly. Some also like to pané them in semolina or breadcrumbs & fry them.
- Shellfish & Crustaceans – Prawns, Clams, Mussels etc, all popularly found all over the island in shops and restaurants as well as in the Marsaxlokk fish market.
Meg: I know people think of Malta as always sunny, but are there seasons there? If so, what are they, and how do they influence Maltese cuisine?
Josef: It's ironic how following the Malta Summit back in 1989, between US President Bush and Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev; marking the end of the Cold War era, people still think that Malta is frequently rainy due to the fierce storm we experienced that day. In reality Malta has a typical Mediterranean climate with ample sunshine – a daily average of five to six hours during mid-winter, extending to an approximate 12 hours in summer. It's also influenced by the sea, thus making the island quite humid.
Summer is usually extended by an additional two-three months with hot, dry and sunny days. Winters are usually quite mild, with occasional cold & rainy periods. Spring is usually warmer then summer, whilst autumn is usually cooler than winter. However, both are shorter than the usual three-month standard period. Moreover, these months are characterized mainly according to the wind, whether it's a cool European breeze or a humid African blow.
Due to climate change we are experiencing some unusual patterns-–excessive heat, longer droughts or heavy rainfall in short periods. From my experience with farmers, all of these are leaving an effect on local produce. Even though we rely mainly on importation due to the small scale of the Island and dense population; the local supply does have a significant place within our food culture both for the locals as well as the tourism industry. The situation is much more fragile than people might think. Recently we experienced some bad weather and due to strong winds and rough seas, a main food store had to close until the supplies could arrive from a neighboring country.
Easter Time in Malta
Meg: I visited Malta at Easter time and loved participating in many of the holiday's traditions. Can you describe any dishes that are typical during the Easter season?
Josef: Let’s start this not from Easter, but from the Carnival celebration as this is the event which starts the journey for the finale of Easter.
For Carnival we have the Prinjolata--a pudding made from crushed biscuits & sponge, condensed milk, sugar and liquors; covered with meringue. This is then mixed nuts (primarily pine nuts), candied peel & glazed cherries, and for decoration, a drizzle of melted chocolate. It is believed that the name ‘Prinjolata’ is derived from the word ‘prinjol’, meaning pine nuts, as many argue that originally these were the only nuts used to prepare this sweet.
We would then move immediately to Lent, a period where traditionally one is expected to make penitence and sacrifice. Amongst several foods that people decide to omit from their diet include meats, milk & dairy products, sugar and sweets. Fish & vegetable-based dishes become more popular in this period. From experience, I have noticed that this does not have much effect within touristic areas, however it does feel stronger in other parts of the Island which are more popular with locals, even though this might not be the standard anymore.
Special Food in Malta for Holiday's
One of the local dishes which personally I find typical of this period is ‘Qaqoċċ Mimli’ or stuffed artichokes with anchovies, olives, onions & herbs. During the Holy Week, one would also find the ‘Qagħqa ta l-Appostli’, literally translated as the Apostle’s Bread Ring, its a soft bread in the shape of a ring covered with sesame seeds & almonds. I remember back in my childhood days when I was an altar boy we used to have the Holy Week Procession around Kirkop and the parish priest used to give one of these bread rings to all those who took part in the procession. Moreover, during the Holy Week, at Catechism classes we used to celebrate the Passover meal in the Jewish style. This used to be another event which I looked forward to every year during my teenage years; primarily because I was fascinated by the rituals and specific meaning of each food item.
Of course, there is always a ‘bypass’ or a ‘contingency plan’ so we have a specific sweet for Lent known as ‘Kwareżimal’. It's name is derived from the Latin word ‘quaresima’ meaning the 40 days penitence of Lent. It is a sort of semi-sweet, nutty and slightly chewy type of biscuit, made primarily from ground almonds flavored with orange blossom water, lemon zest and cinnamon; and drizzled with honey.
On Easter Sunday we find the ‘Figolli’ a sweet pastry stuffed with almond paste and decorated with royal icing. They are usually formed into different shapes usually a lamb or some other shape which reflects life such as butterflies and rabbits. Back in the days, Grandma used to organize an Easter meal where all the family would be invited, and for dessert she used to prepare a large 3D lamb-shaped figolla, decorated as realistically as possible. Apart from Figolli, nowadays one also finds as well chocolate Easter eggs in shops – I used to love these for the puzzles inside them.
A Christmas Tradition
Meg: What about Christmas? Are there dishes and/or food traditions that are typical for this holiday season?
Josef: Something which I should mention in relation to both Christmas and the traditional Easter meal, during a research I had conducted in collaboration with the Kirkop Local Council, we learned that the Kid was the main dish for Easter whilst the Lamb was available during Christmas. In the past there were no freezers. People relied only on the produce they had at their disposal and the natural cycle; thus during Christmas one would only find lamb while the Kid was available around Easter time.
There are a number of dishes one would find related to Christmas including:
- Imbuljuta tal-Qastan – A chestnut and chocolate soup/stew traditionally served after the Christmas midnight mass, however one can find this throughout the month of December.
- Timpana – Baked macaroni, mixed with a meat & tomato sauce along with boiled eggs, cheese and sometimes even chicken liver; all wrapped in a pastry casing. The dish is similar to the Sicilian Timballo. Although I have met people who cook this specifically on Christmas, many have turned this into a Sunday dish since pasta has become an easily accessible commodity.
- Majjal Għad-Dobbu – This dish has probably became extinct, however its core element, the pork, still remains popular. Originally this used to be a sort of aromatic pork stew, accompanied probably by rice. Nonetheless, roasted pork leg or shoulder, and stuffed pork loin are two of the most popular contemporary dishes one could find on a Maltese family dinner Christmas table. Interestingly, the term ‘Dobbu’ still remains in the colloquial language as a popular nickname where most of the time the person with this nickname is related to a family of butchers.
- Serduq/Ħasi l-Forn – ‘Serduq’ means a cock whilst ‘Ħasi’ is a castrated cock; therefore a roasted rooster. In the past, during November on the feast of St.Martin, people used to castrate the bird so that it would grow much bigger than usual. They were kept until Christmas and then roasted in the oven along with potatoes and some herbs. Nowadays, whilst some like myself prefer the rooster, others opt for a turkey if a big bird is required.
- Qagħaq ta l-Għasel – translated literally into Honey Rings, these are a pastry filled with a mixture originally made out of honey (nowadays made mostly from treacle) and shaped into a ring.
Meg: We can’t forget to discuss desserts! What are some traditional Maltese desserts, and do they have any symbolic significance?
Josef: Apart from the sweets already mentioned, there are other sweets. Most of them are related to a specific feast. Here are some of the Maltese sweets one could taste:
- Sinizza – My favourite Maltese sweet especially during spring time accompanying a cup of tea. Sinizza is a sort of swiss-roll (with sweet pastry not sponge) and stuffed with sweet Irkotta.
- Sfineġ ta San Ġużepp – Fried choux pastry, stuffed with Sweet Irkotta.
- Imqaret – Date fritters.
- Maltese Ice-cream – There are different recipes and interpretations to the Maltese ice cream. The most popular is the version which is made with condensed milk and mixed with candied peel. It used to be very popular during a wedding celebration.
- Torta tal-Marmurrat – A chocolate & almond tart with sweet spices.
- Pudina tal-Ħobż – Bread pudding mixed with cocoa powder, sweet spices and dried fruit, topped with sesame seeds.
- Biskuttini tar-Raħal – Translated into village biscuits, these are spiced with aniseed and decorated with pink icing in a spiral patterns.
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The Knights of Malta
Meg: I read that last year Heritage Malta and the Malta Tourism Authority teamed up to present a banquet straight from the tables of the richest Maltese families from the 18th Century. I understand that you researched some of the recipes of the Knights of St. John and learned some cool things about the dishes of the day, and what went into to producing them. Are you able to describe for readers who the Knights of St. John were, what their influence on Malta was, and share what the menu was for this banquet?
Josef: The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta--or, as they are popularly known, the Knights of Malta--were a religious and military order. They were established in Jerusalem to protect the pilgrims, and in 1530, established in Malta and became famously known for the impressive victory over the Ottoman Empire in 1565. This event is still known as the Great Siege of Malta.
Read: You've learned the culture, now learn where to go! Check out Best Cultural Destinations guide to the best things to do in Malta!
Food in Malta References Country's Past
Organizing events such as the one you mention it is not as easy as one might think. Most of the references we have related to food are usually information mentioned coincidentally in different documents. We rarely had recipes out of a historical recipe book. Most of the time we manage to extract a whole recipe out of a sentence or two, so there is always a research period of trying to understand the food in that era, and the social class who partook of the particular recipe. For this particular event, I worked with the curator of the Maritime Museum Liam Gauci to merge the food of the Knights and the food eaten by the common people of Malta in the 18th Century.
The menu we came up with included:
- Anti-pasto Platter- Dried local Goat's cheeselets, Homemade Salami, Parmesan cheese, Ship’s Buiscuits and Qassata (a type of vegetable pie)
- Starter – Spiced Lentil Soup
- Intermediate - Parmesan Ice Cream (yes it was already done in the 18th century)
- Main - Kazquza fuq ix-Xini (pork cooked in milk, wine and aromatics, and accompanied with rice)
- Dessert - Goat's Milk & Cinnamon Ice Cream (also was available during the 18th century)
- Coffee - Cold Coffee & Chocolate Biscotti
To single out one dish and what we can learn from it, consider ice cream. Today you find ice cream in every shop, however back then it was a dish of the elite. The process required ice, which was imported from Etna in Sicily. With no fridges or freezers available, one needed to import these blocks of ice, store them and have someone prepare the desired dish--all making for a costly process. Also, it was very time consuming as one needed to prepare the ice cream mix, chill it and then constantly mix the ice cream to allow the mixture to freeze and achieve a smooth, frozen texture.
One could argue that whilst the palate changes over time & culture, most contemporary kitchen evolutions were not related to the food itself but the equipment used in order to refine the already existing techniques...a mindset that is completely different to the mindset of today's lifestyle.
The Inquisitor's Palace
Meg: I understand that the kitchen complex at the Inquisitor’s Palace in Vittoriosa is Malta's best-documented early kitchen. Are you familiar with it, and can you share with readers what the history of the Palace is, and what it's kitchen tells us about the role of food in that day?
Josef: The Inquisitor’s Palace in Vittoriosa is one of the few surviving palaces of its kind. It was the seat of the Maltese Inquisition from 1574 - 1798 and contains one of the rare early modern prison structures which still survives. With food researcher Dr.Noel Buttigieg and the curator of the museum Kennth Cassar, I have organized several public lectures related to the kitchen documents found in the Inquisitor’s palace. These included chocolate and coffee, ice cream, pane di spagna and rabbit.
At these events we explore the different lifestyles between the upper social class (the Inquisitor) and the common people. These also reflect on how society changes and why we consume the food we eat today.
The Inquisitor's Palace had a complete record of all items which formed part of the Palace itself during different time periods, including an inventory of its kitchen. Thus combining the equipment list with various other writings from the same era, it gave us an understanding of what the Inquisitor and his guests dined on. It sounds simple, but the ice cream session took us over one month of constant everyday experimenting with the information we had, and this was one of the recipes for which we had clear instructions on how to prepare the recipe.
When we speak about recipes, we usually have access to a one-liner description. Sometimes if lucky, we would have a sort of structured method. We do not get a detailed list of ingredients with the measurements followed by a well-explained method and a nice picture like modern cookbooks. What I like to do is I look for any similar contemporary recipe first in order to understand the recipe from a chef's point-of-view; then I work backwards to try and understand the world of people who provided us with the info. When I arrive at a plausible possibility, as a team we discuss the outcome and argue on the historical details and try to come up with the closest possible end product, always staying faithful to the historical information. Experimenting with these recipes literally requires traveling back in time and trying to see food with a different mentality.
*Header photo credit: Pierre Balzia