13 DECEMBER 2015 | PAR SOPHIE RAOBEHARILALA
Malta might not appear very impressive in size when looking at a map of Europe, but the same cannot be said for its History. Over the centuries, a succession of foreign occupation left its trace on the Maltese heritage. Mentioning the country’s name quite often brings the Knights of the Order of Saint John to mind. However Malta’s History began long before 1530. A short overview through Maltese desserts will retrace the different periods of occupation.
Despite having found little analysed sources on the Maltese diet prior the arrival of the Order, we can notice a great influence from North African cultures when it comes to ingredients. Indeed after a long period under the Byzantin Empire, Malta was conquered by the Arabs in AD 870, which also got hold of Sicily at the same time. Thereafter Muslims Arabo-Berbers colonists and Christian slaves arrived on the island.
These cultural influences can be found in the Maltese food of the time, in particular in confectionary and pastries. As G.Cassar-Pullicino explains:
“Alla luce della filologia comparata, le varie influenze cui andarono, soggette le nostre isole si riflettono chiaramente; influenze che si fanno risentire la lontana dimenzione araba, le relazioni commerciali coi paesi dell’Africa del Nord […]”.1
Thus we can find mentioning of candied fruits, fruit paste and the use of dried fruits in the chronicles of the Renaissance. The use of honey and various types of seeds is also characteristic in this period.
It is therefore possible to get nowadays biscuits named Qagħaq Tal-Gunglien, small ring-shaped biscuits made of simple dough and covered with sesame seeds. Cassar-Pullicino stresses the link between food habits and farming which explains the use of crop products as the base of Maltese pastries. In his description of Qagħaq, different recipes are cited, each variety depending on the social affiliations:
“La gente contadina le forma or di pura pasta ora di pasta con gioggiolena coperta, ora di pasta ripiena col miele; le Monache le riempiono ora di miele ora di conserva […]”2
The basic ingredients however remain the same: eggs, honey (later on sugar), flour. De Soldanis3 also recalls a version of Qagħaq filled this time with honey or a fruit paste. The latter being similar to today’s Christmas Qagħaq, Qagħaq Tal-Għasel which is filled with a paste of combined golden syrup, citrus fruits, dried fruits, sugar, spices, dark chocolate etc.
Another influence from Malta’s Arab past and very much part of today’s life is coffee. Like in many other countries, coffee closes a meal. If this beverage rose in Europe in the mid 17th century, it had been in the Maltese habits for decades. In fact, the introduction of coffee on the island happened through slavery. Muslim Turkish slaves made prisoners by the Order of Saint John were held in prisons where they prepared their traditional beverage. As Domenico Magri mentions in his work Virtu del Kafé,
“Those Turks, most skilful makers of this concoction”4
were very much sought after by the Knights themselves who became rapidly fond of the drink. Another statement from the German traveller Gustav Sommerfeldt in 1663 stresses the aroused enthusiasm,
“the ability and industriousness with which the Turkish prisoners earn some money, especially by preparing coffee, a powder resembling snuff tobacco, with water and sugar”.5
The Knights’ fondness for coffee lead to its introduction in Maltese high society. Its success was such that soon enough coffee shops opened and the beverage became popular amongst the entire country. The recipe for Maltese coffee was initially made with grounded coffee beans added to boiling water with cloves and was left to brew as long as it takes to recite a Creed. In the 18th century, coffee was seen as dessert, often served with a small piece of cake, as mentioned in de Soldanis’ dinner recollection:
“For dessert coffee would have been served with a piece of kaghka (pastry with sesame seeds or flavoured with honey; stuffed with honey or preserved fruits).”6
The Arab influence is therefore very much part of the Maltese culture, which if obvious in its language, is just as much in its gastronomy.
However it is not the single influence on Maltese cuisine. Italy also played its part. As mentioned previously, Italy and Malta had strong connexions during the Arab occupation of the island and of Sicily, so much so that this part of Europe was once named the Two Sicilies. Commercial and cultural exchanges followed. Furthermore did the Order of the Knights contribute greatly to this Italian print. The Knights originating from European nobility, their lifestyle had to be maintained at certain standards. But if Malta was rich in terms of food variety, its quantities weren’t sufficient enough to nourish the entire population; besides ingredients for every European diet couldn’t be found on the island. Malta was therefore supplied in majority by Sicily as well as by merchants’ ships from other European countries.
This is how nougat made an entrance in Malta. The honey island found there a sweet fitting perfectly for its food heritage. During the 18th century, Qubbjat (Cubbaitu in Sicilian) was made of honey, caramel and grated lemon peels. This treat was part of the Knight’s menus at the auberges in the 17th century. Quoting for instance the German Knights’ menu in 1691 for Saint Martin’s day:
“On St Martin’s day, the elders received, in addition to their usual meal, one and a half rotolos [1 rotolo = ∾ 800g] of candied fruit; three quarters of a rotolo of sweet biscuits, two rotolos of cubbaita (…). The young Knights (fiernaldi) only celebrated Saint Martin’s feast with the addition of one rotolo of nougat (…). The cook and the Master of the Table also partook of the nougat (…)”.7
Nowadays this treat is still offered in tea-rooms and pastry shops with slight changes in the ingredients with the likes of almonds, nuts, sesame seeds, sugar and cinnamon powder.
If Italy is renowned in the sweet department it can be for its ice-cream. And this dessert has indeed crossed the sea towards Malta. One of the most important food for every resident on the island judging by the local temperatures and weather. The Mediterranean heats were the main cause for the expanding ice and snow trades between both countries. Regular deliveries in provenance of Mount Etna contributed to the success of frozen desserts in high society. Rapidly a snow depot was built on the Marina. In 1664, ice was used to make ice-cream, sorbet and chill drinks. Ice-creams were often made in the shape of fruits, flavoured with fruits or chocolate, cinnamon, coffee, pistachio and other flavours. Michele Mercieca8 wrote in 1748 a recipe book in which techniques of how to shape and paint ices to look just like fruits were detailed.
Finally the British influence followed in a later period from 1800. Christmas celebrations in Malta became more and more British at the beginning of the 20th century. Thus family meals had Christmas puddings, mince pies and fairy cakes on their festive menus. Today this tradition remains and puddings are prepared weeks in advance at both ends of the European continent.
The absence of French influence on pastries is noticeable. Even if the Renaissance was the golden period for French cuisine and gastronomy, unpleasant memories of Napoleon times in Malta after the French revolution marked the rejection of French taste by the Maltese. Only a few savoury recipes subsisted.
Despite all these foreign influences, Malta also had its own touch on its food heritage. Although being an island, Malta had similarities with its neighbour countries, one of them being food crisis. Over centuries grain shortage, epidemic and war have brought up a cuisine of conserve as well as a cuisine of necessity. We can find amongst recipes the Maltese bread pudding (Pudina Tal-Ħobz), a bread-cake also very popular in the rest of Europe. If today’s Maltese recipe is a mix of fruits and cinnamon powder added to bread, milk and eggs, in the past it used to be old bread mixed to available leftovers, whether it be sweet like savoury. The result being a rich cake, filling and having a surprise factor at each bite, this dessert brought a festive twist to the table.
Through this sweet journey, we discover different aspects of Maltese heritage and of its people. The island’s cuisine managed to appropriate itself tastes and flavours from the successive foreign occupations, according to their preferences. If the love of good food of Maltese is evident, a sweet-tooth is also noticeable. Maltese pastries are a real source of information on the country’s History since not only does it retrace the various periods of occupation but it brings them back to life taste-wise since very little has changed in the ingredients of recipes. A balade gourmande for tea-time might be as instructive as a History class…
1G.Cassar-Pullicino, Antichi Cibi Maltesi in Melita Historica : journal of the Malta Historical Society, 3(1961)2(31-54).
3Gian Pietro Francesco Agius de Soldanis (1712-1770): Maltese linguist and cleric.
4Virtù del cafe, Domenico Magri, Rome 1671.
5“Eine Reise nach süditalien und Malta …”, in Archive für Kulturgeschichte, Vol. VIII, 1910).
6De Soldanis, an eighteenth century intellectual, Malta: Heritage Malta and the Ministry of Gozo, Vella, G & O.Vella editions, 2012.
7Giovanni Bonello,“Feasting and fasting at the time of the Knights”, Histories of Malta – Deceptions and Perceptions, Vol.1, 2000.
8Michele Mercieca, Libro di Secreti per Fare Cose Dolci di Varii Modi, 1748.