FOOD AND CULTURE OF MALTA
Homer called it “the navel of the sea” and most maps show Malta as a dot in the Mediterranean between Sicily and the North African coast of Tunisia. Actually, Malta is an archipelago of several islands, the three largest and inhabited ones being Malta, Comino (named for the abundance of wild, fragrant cumin-seed plants), and Gozo. History has considered Malta more than a mere dot on the map. Its strategic location and the sheltered harbors lured so many great maritime powers that it is impossible to dismiss either Malta or the Maltese as insignificant.
The Maltese are believed to be descended from adventurous settlers from Sicily who made their home on the islands more than 6,000 years ago. Excavations of animal remains reveal that Malta may once have been connected to Sicily: the animal remains are of European origin, not African. There is no doubt, however, about the later succession of occupations by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, and Romans. It was during the Roman occupation in 60 C.E. that the ship carrying St. Paul to his trial in Rome was reputedly wrecked on Malta’s shores. Deeply impressed by the warmth and hospitality of the Maltese people, St. Paul was apparently equally impressive to them, for it is from that date that the islands were converted to Christianity. Now, with almost 100 percent of the population being Roman Catholic, Malta is often described as being “more Catholic than the Pope.”
Byzantine conquest followed the Romans, but it was the subsequent domination of the Arabs, who held Malta from 800-1000 C.E., that left deep imprints on Malta’s architecture and language. Present-day Maltese is an Arabic dialect strongly etched with the later addition of Italian, Spanish, French, and even English words. It is the only Semitic language written in the Latin alphabet.
The long line of conquerors did not end with the Arabs. Normans and Spaniards took their turn at the strategic islands, but it was the Knights of Saint John who were to leave the next lasting marks upon the Maltese.
It was King Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and King of Spain, who “rented” Malta to the Knights of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem after the Turks had driven them from Rhodes. The “rent” took the form of an annual tribute of one falcon – thus the legendary but mystical importance of the “Maltese Falcon” dating from 1530 and immortalized much later in Dashiel Hammett’s novel of the same name. Both the falcon and the Knights’ eight-pointed cross (the Maltese Cross) remain today as Maltese symbols. Lesser known but of more importance are the many hospitals and charitable organizations that the Knights left behind in Malta and which operate to this day.
Although the Knights of the Order of Saint John were able to help the Maltese withstand a powerful Turkish siege, their rule collapsed in 1798 without a shot being fired. It is believed that Napoleon seized Malta for France with the secret aid of some of the Knights. Nonetheless, French rule was only a brief two years, and was brought to an abrupt end by a Maltese revolt aided by the British. In 1814, the Treaty of Paris officially gave Malta to the British and the 150-year British rule was to leave its indelible mark. Although the British preferred to retain their own traditions, the Maltese cheerfully adapted the habit of “elevenses” and four o’clock tea, bright red postboxes, helpful police officers and driving their cars on the left. They even developed a taste for beer.
Despite the long tiresome hold of so many conquerors, the Maltese have stubbornly retained their distinctive language, their Roman Catholicism, their many traditions and festivals and their national flag. In 1964 they achieved their independence, and in 1974 the international status of a republic.
They have also retained something else. In spite of the successive dominations by so many foreign powers and in spite of the density of population on the tiny islands, the Maltese are known for their courtesy and good humor and they are never too busy to take a stroll or chat with friends. Perhaps these are the very qualities that enabled them to endure such relentless hardships as the incessant bombing raids in World War II. So incredible was the courage of this tiny nation of over 350,000 people living on 122 square miles, that in 1942 King George VI awarded the nation the George Cross for “heroism and devotion” and in 1943 President Franklin D. Roosevelt also presented the nation a special citation.
Perhaps the sunny disposition of the Maltese comes from the moderate Mediterranean climate that basks the islands for most of the year in a pleasant warmth. Two winds occasionally disturb the tranquility of climate: the hot sirocco blowing during August and September, and the gregale, a sharp north-easterly that can whip the sea to a froth and cause problems for fishermen.
The climate also helps the scanty topsoil to coax forth enough potatoes and onions for export, but of the other vegetables, fruits, wheat and barley, only enough for local use are grown. Goats are still used for meat and milk but are mostly supplanted by the sheep (lamb and mutton) and the dairy farms of cows Introduced by the British to supply cream, milk, and butter. The island’s main sustenance comes from the sea. Even with skill and ingenuity, almost 80 percent of Malta’s food needs must be imported.
Retaining their identity and cheerful disposition despite a lengthy list of conquerors is a tribute to such a tiny vulnerable nation, and so is their legendary hospitality. Out of a desire to please others, it is actually easier to find cosmopolitan restaurants in Malta than it is to find local cuisine, but the increase in tourism (more than 800,000 visitors annually) and increasing pride in “things Maltese” is changing this.
Malta may be small in population and size but her people are content to stay put; traveling three to ten miles is considered quite a distance and a family living only a few miles from the sea may actually visit the seashore only once or twice in a lifetime. Further, size has nothing to do with the ability to distinguish “local” customs and even varying dialects of Maltese.
The most interesting and notable example of the Maltese view of native differences are the Gozitans. These inhabitants of the island of Gozo are viewed by other Maltese as “the Scotsmen of our islands”; thrifty, industrious, and plain-speaking, the Gozitans can be singled out as leaders in business and church. The island of Gozo is said to be the most fertile because of the persistent and patient toil of her people. And there is a saying that if a fisherman brought in a record catch, he was probably a Gozitan.