Eating Eurovision: Malta

Malta?! I put my hand in the bag first and out of the 25 countries I drew Malta. My GCSE Geography dusted itself off and swung into action. ‘Small Island, somewhere in the Med, bombed a lot during the war’ it said. But as for food, it drew a blank, along with the rest of my knowledge.

Eating Eurovision

Bernard Hamilton: Deputy High Commissioner of Malta

The next day when I asked the press person at the Maltese tourist office about Maltese food in London he replied “there isn’t any”. Two hours later I’m sat in the office of the Deputy High Commissioner for the Republic of Malta having Maltese coffee and biscuits. “It’s true, sadly there’s no Maltese restaurants here,” says Bernard Hamilton. Bernard very kindly found 30 minutes at ridiculously short notice to talk to me about Malta, it’s history and people, and it’s relationship to the UK. Churchill once called Malta the ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’, and the former British colony is now an active member of the Commonwealth. “Our natural resource is our culture and heritage,” says Bernard, a heritage that has been shaped by nearly all the civilisations of antiquity as well as a few modern ones laying claim to the islands. Empire’s come and go, but Malta remains it seems. In fact the main island is home to the oldest free standing structures in the world, these rocks are old.

We come on to Eurovision. “Jade was in Malta a few weeks ago. (She was a guest of their act-choosing show) In Malta we take Eurovision very seriously”. It’s front-page news apparently. Malta, you’ll no doubt be aware, (mostly) give us the maximum 12 points no matter who we send to the competition (yes even Scootch). They are our last unsinkable ally against the axis of eastern Eurovision dominance, our brothers in arms, as Mike Atkinson says in the Guardian ‘we owe them’.

I move the discussion on to food. Bernard talks about the coffee we’re drinking, which is flavoured with fennel, cloves and something called cikwejra, which it turns out is chicory. The traditional flavoured coffees are falling out of favour, being replaced by the standard Italian styles. We also have some little dry biscuits to dip into the coffee. We move on to more substantial matters. “The national dish is rabbit,” says Bernard. “Families often keep their own rabbits to eat, and so consequently look after them well”. We talk some more about being a diplomat, Bernard won Young Diplomat of the year for his consular work, and the day to day tasks of the Commission, which are dealing with visas, promoting trade and tourism, and helping look after Malta’s interests in the UK. Before I leave Bernard very kindly gives me some Maltese wine, a 2006 Medina Vineyard. It’s a blend of syrah, Grenache and carignan from Delicata and gratefully received.

Things are moving…

I head back home and get a call from one of the other leads I’d frantically found earlier in the morning; Barbara from the Maltese Cultural Movement. We arrange to meet in a pub in Highgate, as she’s a few Maltese treats for me. These turn out to be some bottles of Cisk (pronounced Chisk) lager, six cans of Kinnie (a bitter/sweet soft drink native to Malta) and some Pastizzi – the ubiquitous (in Malta anyway) snack. Pastizzi come with either ricotta or pea fillings, and each village baker has their own way of making them – all done by hand. The ones I’ve got are frozen; I’ll be having them during Eurovision. If you want to try some either order them off Barbara or keep an eye out for Cynthia who runs and does some of the markets in London. Kinnie is a bitter drink made from oranges, but with slight aniseed notes. It’s reminds me of Campari, and is probably best served ice cold in a little café in Valetta. It’s the Irn Bru of Malta.

Eating Eurovision

Cisk lager and Kinnie soft drink

Barbara and her husband set up the Maltese Cultural Movement 11 years ago “because there was nothing really for the Maltese people in the UK”. (Earlier Bernard estimated that people of Maltese extraction number 50,000 in the UK, mostly based in London). “When we opened the centre in April 1998 we were overwhelmed by the response”. They now organise three Maltese themed events every year, the next being June 27th to celebrate mnarja. The festival takes place in Malta to honour St Peter and St Paul. “The whole island gets together, and it was at the festival that you hoped to meet a wife or a husband,” says Barbara. Indeed from listen to both Barnard and Barbara the Maltese like to party most weekends of the summer, there’s always something going on. (More on Maltese festivals here)
Barbara then talks about the future of the Maltese Cultural Movement, “when we set it up, we go the support of the first generation community, those that came over after the war, now we’re into the second and third generation –as well as young Maltese coming here for the first time – we need to be there for them too.”
Barbara also gives me a rabbit recipe, and here it is.
Fried Rabbit
1 rabbit cut into portions
Plenty of Garlic cut roughly (nearly a whole bulb)
Bay leaf
White wine (couple of large glasses, maybe more)
Fry the rabbit in a shallow oil and add half the garlic, season with salt and pepper. When the rabbit is golden in colour add the bay leaf for about a minute then take out the excess oil. Add the rest of the garlic and fry a little before adding the white wine and simmering until tender.

Eating Eurovision

Lots of garlic, lots of bay leaf

More Maltese kindness

Garlic it seems is key it seems to Maltese cooking, and indeed ‘did you put the garlic?’ is the blog name of a second generation Maltese Mary Rose who I met next.

Eating Eurovision

Mary and her lovely cakes

Mary-Rose was born in Melbourne to Maltese parents, she went to and fro between the Island and Oz before eventually settling in the UK. We arrange to meet at St Pancras at 7:45 and since finishing work at 6 she’s been home and baked me some cakes – I’m aghast. She’s also got a Maltese cookbook to lend me “my mother thinks this book’s rubbish” she says. The cakes are Pastini tal coconut, and here’s the recipe.

250g plain flour
250g butter
500g desiccated coconut
350g Sugar
A few drops of vanilla essence
4 eggs

Method (makes four dozen)
Rub the flour and butter together, them mix through the coconut. Then mix in the sugar and vanilla essence. Whisk the eggs into the mixture. Roll into little balls and decorate with glace cherries or almonds. Bake for 10-15 minutes at 200 degrees.
‘My mother always makes these in huge batches” says Mary, who then goes on to tell me about the pleasures and pitfalls of a Maltese mother. It seems that Maltese mothers are at the heart of the home, and Malta is a place where many traditional values are still present (The word for wife is the same as for woman). “My other half says it’s not so much backward, as just in a time warp”.

Mary goes on to talk about everything from the Maltese film industry to post war rationing to her mother’s lack of a toaster and the joy that is hobz biz-zejt. The later is literally translated as bread and oil, yet is more of an open sandwich. Take the traditional Maltese bread and place ripe sliced tomatoes on top, then add capers and tuna, before drizzling on a lot of olive oil. “This was often my lunch at School in Melbourne, when all the other kids had veggie-mite sandwiches” says Mary.
Bernard, Barbara and Mary all talked about rabbit as the national dish, and as it happens I had a bunny in the freezer from my trip round Smithfield Meat Market. So, armed with a recipe from Barbara and a Maltese Cookbook Mary lent me, I’m ready cook the Maltese national dish…

Eating Eurovision

Rabbit, with liver in

Stuffat tal-fenek aka stewed rabbit.
Barbara’s rabbit casserole.
Rabbit (plus liver and kidney’s). Red wine. Garlic. Onion. Tomatoes. Bay leaves. Spices (Chinese five spice). Salt & Pepper. Peas (Marrowfat).
Cut the rabbit into six pieces (legs, loin and front legs)
Sauté the rabbit with onion, garlic and wine and tomato sauce (made from more onion, garlic, bay leaf, spices and wine) simmer gently and add the peas.

Eating Eurovision

adding tomatoes

It’s 9:30pm by the time I get back home, and the aim of the stew is to cook it long and slow so the meat’s almost falling off the bones, so this is very much going to have to be a dish for tomorrow. I’m not very good at following recipes while cooking. Some people can’t be with out them, relying on them as a classical musician might rely on sheet music. I tend to riff a little when it comes to cooking, Barbara’s recipe calls for Chinese five spice, Mary’s book calls for curry powder and some pork belly. I’ve got none of these in the house, so opt for a tea spoon of garum masala. I just remember what Barbara said, ‘lots of garlic and bay leaf’, and put in loads.

Next, the rabbit. Why I think rabbit fell out of favour and was replaced by chicken is that when it’s laid out in front of you, it looks like a dead skinned animal, where as a chicken – upside down with legs and feet off – just looks raw. The way to deal with any squeamish thoughts you might have is to just get stuck in and cut it up, once you’ve broken the form it too can just look like raw ingredients. I chop it down into legs, loin and other bits, deciding to leave the head out, and brown it in the pan having first removed the onions and garlic.

Maltese Rabbit Stew

ready for tonight!

I put the lot back in and add a glass of Bernard’s Maltese wine and a carton of passata, bringing it up to a high heat. Lastly I add the liver, which is very delicate. Barbara recommends frying this with more garlic and oil before adding a splash of malt vinegar and eating – but it’s now getting on a bit so I just add it in and hope it’ll flavour the sauce. I set my oven to 100 degrees and pop the casserole in and set the time to turn off at 6am, giving 7 hours of long slow cooking. Most recipes call for peas to be added, Barbara says marrowfat are the best, but I’ve only got petit pois and they’ll have disintegrated after 7 hours cooking so I decide to add those when I reheat it tomorrow.
This morning the stew looks amazing, the sauce has thickened and darkened considerably, and the rabbit is soft and moist. Traditionally you would spoon off some of the sauce and have that over spaghetti as a starter, then have the meat with potatoes as a main course. Which is what I intend to do, with a glass of Maltese wine, an appetiser of pastizzi or two, and a drink of Kinnie.

When I woke up on Friday I knew next to nothing about Malta, and bugger all about its food. In 24 hours I’ve had coffee with the deputy high commissioner and sourced Maltese products and recipes first hand, which is exactly what Eating Eurovision is all about. As I said in the guidelines, most people are proud of their heritage and culture, and want to share it, and that makes the world a better place. There may not be a Maltese restaurant in London, but there’s lots of people who are proud to be Maltese, and who knows, maybe it’s time for one.

16 Responses to “Eating Eurovision: Malta”

  1. 1 Mary-Rose May 16, 2009 at 11:09 am

    Nice. Glad you liked the rabbit. 🙂 You’re spot on about it looking just like a skinned animal. Mighty tasty though.

    Just to point out a typo, my blog hasn’t got an “in” at the end. It’s a weird bit of Maltlish – the end of questions gets left off.

  2. 2 Lizzie May 16, 2009 at 11:43 am

    Andrew, you’ve put my efforts to shame! Fantastic.

  3. 3 Su-Lin May 16, 2009 at 11:47 am

    Wow – the Deputy High Commissioner! You found some fantastic contacts!

  4. 4 canelvr May 16, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    That’s very interesting about chicory coffee! I’m wondering if it isn’t a throwback to war rationing. Chicory coffee’s very popular in the north of France near Belgium, too, another area that took a pounding during the war. Come to think of it, they’re rather keen on rabbit as well.

    Great that you got up close and personal with the Maltese. This project has been a ton of fun, and such a steep learning curve. Thanks Andrew for dreaming this one up!

  5. 5 foodrambler May 16, 2009 at 1:06 pm

    I went to Malta last year and the people there were THE friendliest I’ve ever come across. Can’t wait to go back. Wish there was a Maltese restaurant in London.

  6. 6 Jody May 16, 2009 at 3:30 pm

    Great story. Much more interesting than if you’d picked somewhere like Italy.

  7. 7 goodshoeday May 16, 2009 at 5:16 pm

    I am almost speechless. This is amazing work in the time available. Hope the stew turns out as delicious as it sounds. Great work.

  8. 8 Mary-Rose May 17, 2009 at 8:31 am

    I’m getting hassled by everyone to take up writing that cookbook again.

    Did a bit of research at Blackwell’s yesterday, there is one glossy, hardcover book available – but only in the states, it can be ordered but takes 2-4 weeks, called “Taste of Malta Expanded” by Carmen M. Caruana (first printed a month ago).

  9. 9 Gourmet Chick May 17, 2009 at 1:36 pm

    During my trip to Malta I ate a LOT of Rabbit! Delicious though.

  10. 10 Boo May 18, 2009 at 3:38 pm

    Wow, that stew looks seriously good, what in amazing effort you went to, sounds like great fun. I’ve just returned from a holiday in Malta and I’m kicking myself that I didn’t try rabbit stew while I was there. I did however, indulge in a fair bit of Cisk!

  11. 11 Colin Clarke July 29, 2009 at 3:06 pm

    Why are there no Maltese restaurants in London or in other parts of the UK when every other country seems to be represented?

  12. 12 eyedropper July 29, 2009 at 8:31 pm

    Hi Colin, Umm, not sure you’ve got the jist of the project. As the article says there are NO Maltese restaurants in London, no one has set one up.

    And as for ‘other parts of the UK’ the whole project was set within the M25, see the Eating Eurovison site for more details

  13. 13 Niall Dologhan November 26, 2009 at 12:40 pm

    Lived in Malta for 7 years from ’82-89.

    Loved Maltese food particularly Hobz Biz-eh-at (no idea of the spelling). Maltese bread was also delicious and was delivered fresh to our house every morning by a chap in a little van. Pastizzi were also brilliant (the ilovepastizzi link above doesn’t work btw)

    Have to go back and visit at some point!

  14. 14 ruth November 28, 2009 at 1:18 pm

    its spelled hobz biz-zejt (hobz = bread, zejt = oil).

    ohhh its a pity that there aren’t any maltese restaurants in london…when i lived in the uk for a while i found it really difficult to find ingredients that you need for some maltese foods…i remember looking all over the place for some proper ricotta! The one i bought was horrible tasting and expensive!

    PS. I’d recommend the fried rabbit over the stewed version. Tastes much much nicer. Another maltese speciality is horse meat. Best restaurants for these type of dishes in malta are in the non-touristic zones of Bahrija and Mgarr.

  15. 15 PJ April 26, 2010 at 7:18 pm

    “when it’s laid out in front of you, it looks like a dead skinned animal”

    That’s because it IS a dead skinned animal!

    As someone who shoots them and also prepares them for cooking, it is not very pleasant doing the butchering. We are all too far removed from nature when we get a portioned animals in a supermarket. It’s almost abstract. People should be reminded of where their food comes from. I will say though I always chop off the heads before skinning, which helps in the abstraction process.

    I found your site searching for rabbit recipes.
    My sister & her husband went to Malta last year and he had your rabbit stew and was not impressed. Tough as old boots and no flavour. Obviously picked a poor restaurant. I’m hoping to win them around with this version.


  1. 1 Eating Eurovision: Malta « Eating Eurovison ‘09 Trackback on May 16, 2009 at 10:44 am

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These are my personal views and not those of Channel 4 or the BBC
May 2009
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