The Fascinating History and Delicious Cuisine of Malta

Liz Gill explores the natural world, the heritage of many cultures, and the culinary delights of this island gem

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Malta probably has more history per square foot than almost anywhere else in the world. But it also has a wide range of other attractions – and it’s only three hours from London making it an ideal destination for a short break. Liz Gill spent a long weekend checking out its traditional features and some new ones.

Though only 19 miles by ten the island’s position at the heart of the Mediterranean and its natural harbours have made it a place of strategic importance for centuries: it has been occupied by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and the British.

The British though, our guide Audrey tells us, were not conquerors: the Maltese, angered by Napoleon’s troops looting their churches, invited us in to kick out the French and govern the island. We stayed from 1798 to 1979 and our presence can still be seen in red phone boxes, electrical plugs, driving on the left and the fact that English is an official language. Maltese, Audrey adds, is linguistically unique, a semitic language derived from Arabic but written with Latin characters.

She is taking us on a walking tour around the honey-coloured stone city of Valletta, the first to be laid out on a grid system, in this case to aid ventilation, at the instigation of the Knights of St. John in 1530. The immensely powerful and wealthy order who stayed for another 268 years began as hospitallers for pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land but later became a formidable fighting force. Their eight pointed red cross is still the country’s symbol.

As well as Valletta, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, they built forts, watch towers, aquaducts, churches and cathedrals, the most spectacular of which is the Co-Cathedral of St John the Baptist. (Its co status srems from the fact that there already was a cathedral in the original capital Mdina).

The exterior is plain to the point of minimalism which makes the interior even more jaw-dropping: there is not inch not covered either by paintings, gilding, tiles or marble in a Baroque extravaganza. Even this pales though beside the masterpiece that draws in the crowds: Caravaggio’s gut-wrenching, heart-rending the Beheading of St John the Baptist, the only work the artist ever signed.

Another saint important to the island is St. Paul who was shipwrecked here on his way to Jerusalem and stayed for two years with St. Luke who was accompanying him on the journey and who wrote about it in the Acts of the Apostles.

Earlier we have passed two modern buildings, both by Renzo Piano who designed the Shard: the elegant new parliament and the less successful Royal Opera House’s open air replacement with its scaffolding like structure and plastic looking seats.

We leave the capital to drive to the Naval Cemetery at Kalkara, the final resting place of over 1,000 casualties from the two World Wars, a moving reminder of Malta’s place in the defence of freedom. So badly bombed was the country in World War II that its people were awarded the George Cross for their bravery and suffering. There is also a memorial to the 67 Japanese sailors who died in World War I when their country was Britain’s ally.

Back in Valletta we cross the Grand Harbour, acclaimed as the most beautiful in the Mediterranean, in a dghajsa, a gondola-like water taxi, to the Three Cities area of Birgu, Senglea and Cospicua. Though historically cities they are more village sized with narrow hilly streets which we are going to explore with a novel form of transport – Rolling Geeks, self drive electric buggies which not only tell you where you’re going but what you’re seeing.

They are a good alternative to walking especially if you are with children likely to tire or for anyone with mobility problems but if you’re in the backward-facing rear seats they can be a bit of a bone shaker – there are a lot of speed bumps in those old streets – especially after lunch.

Food has played a big part in our stay ranging from a pastizzi snack in a little cafe in Rabat to a full blown replica of an historic meal at the waterfront Maritime Museum. Pastizzi are a local speciality, around 50p’s worth of flaky pastry filled with a variety of hot fillings including mushy peas, my Northern roots are delighted to discover.

At the other end of the scale we dine on dishes first created for Paolo Gelfo in 1757. a merchant captain who specialised in providing his guests with top notch food and drink from a kitchen at the crossroads of the Mediterranean and all its attendant influences. So we have a spicy lentil soup, baked vermicelli topped with crumbled artisan pork sausage and cuoco reale a wild game and beef pie. All the recipes were taken from the archives but the pie was twice baked in the name of authenticity making it edible only to the most strong jawed and determined. The filling was delicious though and the vanilla and coffee sorbet wonderfully soothing.

We have also visited a winery, the Ta’ Betta for a walk round the vines and a tasting of the fine wines they have created, fine enough to retail at around £55 a bottle. Very little of the country’s wine is exported so you have to sample in situ or bring a bottle home (the are less expensive ones).

For those who prefer beer Farsons brewery offers an interesting tour of the history of beer on the island – linked needless to say to the presence of so many sailors – ending with a glass of the big local brand Cisk in the rooftop bar.

In between we have had a lot of fun making ftira the Maltese version of pizza, the difference being a slightly drier dough and turned in edges. The experience at the Girgenti olive grove is called Fattar which literally means to flatten though it is also slang for a mistake so we so we press out our dough and slap it between our hands hoping we will achieve the right definition rather than the wrong one.

We do it under the tutelege of chef Karl who has earlier given us a taste of the ‘liquid gold’ of the grove, so fresh it has a kick at the back of the throat. He advises us not to overload our ftiras from the array of ingredients and we remain relatively restrained though there is some heated debate as to whether tuna has any place on a ftira, ever. A couple of minutes in the oven and they are ready to eat and taste great, the experience enhanced by the being outdoors with the scent of herbs and the views across the fields.

We work off some of this eating with a morning’s activities, riding out on the cliffs above Golden Bay on a group of foot-sure, patient horses, a lovely way to experience the scents and sights of the countryside and the sea.

We follow this with a segway session over the same ground but needing such concentration I’m glad I’ve done the more relaxed horse ride first. Though very nervous beforehand, I felt to get the hang of it pretty quickly and grew in confidence as we rolled along the road. Off road, however, was a different matter – loads of loose stones, pot holes and challenging cambers – and any pride I was developing did come before a fall when I followed the wrong path and hit a boulder.

I never thought I’d have anything in common with George W Bush or Piers Morgan but I learnt afterwards that they had famously taken tumbles off segways. Piers broke three ribs but the former president was unharmed, as was I, the only thing bruised being my ego, so I got back on and completed the stint.

We also manage to fit in a short boat trip along the coast to the beautiful Blue Grotto and a visit to the 6000 year old temples at Hagar Qim where we marvel at the massive structures – one megalith is estimated to weight 20 tonnes, built using only obsidian or flint tools.

Perhaps for me though the highlight of the trip was joining in the celebrations in Rabat for the feast day of their patron saint St. Joseph. It was their first since Covid so the mood was even more joyous than usual, we were told. Ticker tape cascaded down from balconies and rooftops on smiling, singing crowds who followed marching bands through streets elaborately and lovingly decorated with flags and banners and statues.

Inside the church we listened to sacred music of spine tingling beauty from a concealed choir. After the final blessings eight burly men pushed rods through holes in the base of an enormous statue of St Joseph with the Christ Child and bore it out into the streets for another procession and more jubilation.

Everyone we talked to or asked questions of was warm and welcoming and proud to share this splendid ceremony with us. And, they reassured us, visitors not lucky enough to be here on this day could usually find another such festival. Malta, apparently, has over a hundred festas a year. 1644

Liz Gill was a guest of and

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