With fresh milk for drinking, canned milk for tea and coffee and the daily use of cheese with bread or as part of a sauce or casserole (pasta dish), milk is obviously high on the list of priorities. The famed pastizzi or Maltese cheesecakes may be large or tiny and although usually made with puff pastry and a filling of Rikotta, they still retain the same name when they are made with anchovies or even peas and onions. So popular are the pastizzi that they are available everywhere in bars and coffee shops and commonly form a mid-morning snack with tall glasses of tea or coffee. Many varieties of hard or aged cheese are used, shredded or grated for rice or pasta dishes. Gbejniet are the small fresh cheeses made by farmers’ wives and sold fresh, dried, or peppered, and preserved in olive oil and vinegar.
FRUITS AND VEGETABLES
If you want someone from Malta to become nostalgic, just mention prickly pears. These are by no means the only native fruit – just the favorite. Also included and eaten mostly fresh and juicy are pampamousse, small round watermelons, dates and figs, oranges and apples and many small berries. Most home gardens grow their own pampamousse and grapes. Fresh fruits are the usual dessert.
Vegetables are more than a garnish or accompaniment; they are cooked in a variety of ways and often form the main dish of a supper. From the Greeks the Maltese adapted a number of stuffed vegetable dishes; from the French they adapted the method of “refreshing” – a brief boiling of the fresh vegetables then a dunking in cold water, thus retaining both color and texture. Favorite vegetables include pumpkin (ripened on Malta’s flat rooftops), aubergines and courgettes (eggplants and zucchini), broad beans and artichokes. Many varieties of squashes and gourds, leafy greens, cabbage and cauliflower and of course potatoes and onions are cooked in satisfying and imaginative ways. These include not only the stuffed vegetable recipes already mentioned but also breading and frying, layering in casseroles, baking as a filling in crispy pastry pies, as patties and fritters and even as steamed, molded puddings to be served with cheese and bechamel sauce.
MEATS AND ALTERNATES
In a Maltese cookbook, the recipes for fish will likely precede the recipes for meats. Not only are there many varieties of fresh fish and seafood and dozens of ways to prepare and serve them, but even with the lifting of the ban of meat on Fridays, most Maltese prefer to make Friday a fish day. Many others also abstain from meats on Wednesdays.
Most famed is the lampuka, also called dorado or dolphinfish, closely followed by varieties of mackerel, tunny fish, mullet, bass, grouper, and many more. Lampuka is poached, baked, fried, stewed, or made into fish soup. Torta tal-lampuka is a meal-in-a-dish: between two layers of pastry is placed a combination of lampuka and a sauce of vegetable chunks surprisingly tasty with olives, sultanas, and walnuts. Salt cod, cuttlefish, turtle, snails, and sea urchins (rizzi) are also enjoyed.
Meat in any quantity is usually reserved for a Sunday or festive dinner with the best and largest cut going to the father, head of the household. The rest of the family round out their meal with potatoes and other vegetable dishes, bread and cheese. Maltese homemakers value meats and nothing is ever wasted. Not only are bits of meats and bones used to flavor casseroles, stuffed vegetables, and soups, there is also a long list of appetizing dishes prepared from offal, including tripe, brains, liver, and tongue. Zalzett ta’ Malta (Malta sausages) are composed of a mixture of fat and lean pork seasoned with garlic and coriander and stuffed into pork intestines and hung for two to three days. Beef and pork, lamb and rabbit, chicken and game birds add variety to the menu.
Eggs and legumes are not a special part of the Maltese menu. Eggs are used occasionally as a light meal or snack but most often as an ingredient in other dishes. Dried legumes are seldom used except for the large brown lentils which are popular in soppa tal-ghazz, a thick lentil soup simmered with vegetables and pig’s feet.
BREADS AND GRAINS
Bread and pasta, the staples of the Maltese diet, are both prepared from wheat. But the Malta bread is memorable because it is baked from a sourdough starter which gives it a particular taste and coarse texture. The crispy crust is enhanced by the traditional baking of the bread on the floor of the oven rather than on a pan. This bread is not only part of every Maltese meal, it is also the main dish for lunch or even a light supper when hollowed out and stuffed with tomatoes, anchovies, and cheese, and drizzled with olive oil. Rubbed with a pungent clove of fresh garlic and sprinkled with salt and olive oil, Malta bread makes a quick savory snack.
And every Maltese is familiar with hobz biz-zejt, thick slices of bread rubbed with fresh tomatoes, sprinkled with olive oil, salt and pepper, then topped with any combination of sliced onions, garlic, herbs, capers, olives, or anchovies. This quick snack satisfies laborers’ appetites for lunch, children for “elevenses” (mid-morning snack) and whole families as an easy light supper served with local wine. Galletti, krustini, and biskutelli are small breads sometimes made at home.
Pasta dishes abound, but most are complex. Timpana is really a version of a similar Sicilian dish where puff pastry forms the outside layer of a center filled with layered cooked macaroni, bits of brain, liver, and pork seasoned with tomato paste, Parmesan. and onion. Carefully baked, the dish is unmolded and served in slices. (Today timpana is a main dish; in previous times it was merely an appetizer.) Ravjul (ravioli) and many types of pasta cooked to perfection and topped with delicate sauces of cheese, vegetables, or fish are a part of every Maltese menu.
Close in importance to both bread and pasta is rice. Rice is used in stuffing for meats and vegetables and in many dishes in the same way as pasta. One of the classic Maltese dishes is ross fil-forn, literally “baked rice.” It is made from a mixture of ground meat, seasonings, raw beaten eggs, and tomato paste blended with stock or water and raw rice. The whole mixture is slowly baked in the oven to a golden crustiness.
It should be noted that while few Maltese cooks bother to bake their own bread, it would be difficult to find one who was not an expert maker of light flaky puff pastry (the downfall of cooks elsewhere) and who did not possess an old treasured family recipe for filling pastizzi.
Maltese use many fats for cooking, baking, and as a spread. Lard, margarine, and salt butter are used widely for cooking and baking. Margarine is used at the table but fresh Rikotta cheese is the favorite spread. Olive oil and a variety of vegetable and seed oils are also used.
SWEETS AND SNACKS
The popular Maltese dessert is usually fresh fruit and sometimes cheese. Sweets in the form of pastries, candies, and rich desserts are usually reserved for special occasions and most often purchased from the confectioner’s rather than prepared at home. A listing of specialty sweet dishes sounds like an international roll call of sweetmeats because it includes the many specialties known in other countries: chestnut fillings, almond, chocolate and nougat, sesame seeds, dates and treacle, trifles and steamed puddings, pine nuts and crunchy meringues.
Maltese food may be simple and hearty but it is seldom subtle. Strong flavors are enjoyed and these often include the pungency of garlic and onions cut with the bright acidity of tomatoes. In fact one of the most basic seasonings is actually an all-purpose sauce of fried onions, garlic, and tomato paste known as toqlija. Freshly ground pepper, spicy hot curry blends, and fresh aromatic herbs are all used with a generous hand. These include mint, parsley, marjoram, basil, and rosemary
Beer was introduced by the British, but local wines are still the favorite accompaniment for the evening meal. Coffee and tea with canned milk is taken by adults for breakfast and lunch, for “tea” at four and for “elevenses” in mid-morning. Children drink milk except at the evening meal when they will often have a glass of wine.