FOOD & DRINK: THE MEDITERRANEAN'S MISSING LINK

Malta's tourists are traditionally treated to egg and chips. But a new book sets the record straight on an island cuisine packed with history and flavour.

YOU MIGHT well assume that a new book on the cuisine of Malta will be a very slim volume, like An Anglers' Guide to the Gobi Desert. Anyone who has visited the island in the last 50 years will surely have miserable memories of its cafes and restaurants, with menus that would disgrace a 1950s station buffet. This is the island which bravely resisted 3,000 Axis air raids in the 1940s to win the George Cross, but has had another less enviable cross to bear, the culinary one that is the stranglehold of 150 years of British garrison cooking. And nothing that's happened on the restaurant scene since Independence in 1964 has indicated that there was a vital local cuisine waiting to spring into place.

Now, however, sisters Anne and Helen Caruana Galizia, the authors of a new book The Food & Cookery of Malta (Prospect Books pounds 12.50), claim that such a cuisine does exist, but has long been repressed. In fact, the surprising conclusion to be drawn from this intensely researched work praising Malta's native food, is that it is the last piece in the jigsaw that is the Mediterranean diet: there is evidence linking the cooking of the present-day Maltese to that of the Phoenician merchant traders 3,000 years ago.

Holiday-makers are unlikely to encounter any Maltese cuisine during a stay on the island, overtaken as it by greedy developers and estate agents intent on grasping the fast bucks of tourism. "We are demolishing Malta's history and culture," lament the sisters. Bars and restaurants still serve the kind of food they believe British visitors adore: egg and soggy chips, mushy steaks, frozen fish, limp salads with salad cream, soup from a packet and processed peas, even when fresh peas can be bought easily.

The aberrations are endless, the sisters claim. "Surely it is not Malta's mission to perpetuate colonial flour-thickened curries made with stale curry powder, left-over meat and a handful of sultanas?" They give one example of a bar owner serving sliced bread sandwiches with shredded lettuce and limp tomato. Asked why he didn't serve excellent crusty Maltese bread instead, he replied with passion: "This is what the tourists want."

So it is that most visitors to Malta remain ignorant of the good, honest food that is cooked in Maltese homes. Since the locals have had no need to go to cafes and restaurants to eat, their style of cooking has stayed firmly in the domestic domain. Many years ago, though, when I visited the island, I did manage to find a few small family-run places serving tasty, thick minestrone soups and macaroni dishes, suggesting a people with Italian links, Malta being no more than 60 miles from Sicily.

The sisters agree that Italian cooking is a big influence, but it is only one of very many sources of the island's unique home cooking. The Maltese have their own language, one which 19th century scholars assumed was related to Arabic. Modern philologists, say the sisters, reckon this is not so and that the language has the characteristics of the ancient Phoenician tongue.

The Phoenicians were adventurous sea-going traders who set off from their homeland in Tyre and Sidon around 1,000BC to create a Mediterranean empire, settling their outposts in North Africa, Sicily, Sardinia, Spain and Malta. Their sailors, exploring the Spanish coast in 1100BC, gave Spain its name, Isephanim or Land of Rabbits, finding it swarming with the little things. The Romans later adjusted the name to Hispania, today's Espana. Phoenician merchant ships were also thought to have travelled as far as south-west England where they traded saffron for tin, which explains why Cornish people to this day, uniquely in Britain, hold saffron close to their hearts.

The Phoenician empire eventually went the way of all empires. In 218BC the Romans sacked the largest colonies, Sicily and Carthage. Phoenicians were put to the sword and those who escaped gradually became part of other national or tribal groups. Historians have only the haziest records of these peoples wiped out by waves of invaders - except in Malta, which was not recolonised, say the sisters. "Its conquerors were happy to rule and exploit it, but never replaced the populace."

So could it be that the 300,000 people of Malta and its neighbouring island of Gozo, are descendants of these very Phoenicians, and perhaps the inheritors of their culture and sensibility? It is, in many respects, like an archaeological discovery. The Maltese language was all but buried during the British occupation from 1810 to 1964. When Anne and Helen were at their convent school, to be caught speaking their own tongue was punishable with a beating. Even the language of law was, by tradition, Italian.

It would be too much to expect the food culture of the Phoenicians to have survived in any form. But the sisters' book of recipes represents the heritage of a long-standing oral tradition in which culinary skills were passed from mother to daughter, and they have uncovered many great gems. Their dishes reflect Malta's position at the shipping crossroads of the Mediterranean, and bear the imprint of generations of invaders: Romans, Arabs, Normans, the Catalan kings of Aragon, Sicilians, the Crusading Knights of St John (exiled from Rhodes in 1530), even briefly the French who, after 16 years, passed it to the British in 1814.

So what is Maltese cooking? Pasta in all its forms is the predominant staple, due to the island's closeness to Italy. But the Maltese have evolved their own forms, such as baked and moulded macaroni: one such, timpana, includes brains and liver. The islanders love thick vegetable and pasta soups, and baked and stuffed vegetables. They adore pies in every form, savoury and sweet, such as pork and pumpkin. Fish is important, with many rich baked dishes. The most favoured meats have been game birds (though most birds are now protected) and rabbit (fried, roast, stewed). This fondness may be due to the fact that rabbits were denied to the ordinary people during the rule of the Knights of Malta.

One can half guess at the source of recipes. Fritters of bacalao (dried salt cod) sound as if they derive from Spain or Portugal. A dish of casseroled pork, described as a daube, must be a momento of French occupation. Turkey is surely the source of a stuffed, baked aubergine recipe which echoes Istanbul's classic Imam Bayaldi. The island's renowned crusty loaf has Greek ancestry, the recipe having been brought by the hundred or so retainers who accompanied the exiles from Rhodes in 1530. It's a lovely bread with a thick, tasty crust and large holes, not unlike a French pain de campagne.

Provence sounds like the provenance of their version of a pan bagna (literally bathed bread) which is a loaf, split down the middle, stuffed with tomatoes and onions, liberally anointed with olive oil, then put under a weight for several hours before being sliced and eaten as a delicious snack. It was first recorded in 1770 (sounding in Maltese very much like the world's first website - hobz biz-zejt. We're talking Phoenician here). And it is surely to the Arabs that they owe much of their skill in making a range of delectable desserts, pastries and sweets, rich with eggs, ricotta cheese, dried fruit, dates, figs, oranges, lemons, almonds and pine nuts.

The Maltese have a passion for fresh fruit too, the island being renowned for its blood oranges. It gives its name to sauce Maltaise although it is not a Maltese dish. This is a hollandaise sauce, basically, in which the lemon juice is replaced by orange juice.

The recipes that follow are from The Food & Cookery of Malta. It can be ordered from Prospect Books (0181 986 4854) directly for pounds 12.50, including p&p.

KWAREZIMAL

LENTEN ALMOND CAKES

200g/7oz blanched almonds

200g/7oz plain flour, sifted

250g/9oz caster or golden caster sugar

1 scant teaspoon cinnamon

orange-flour water

grated rind of 1 lemon, 1 orange and 1 tangerine

Malta honey

pistachio nuts or additional almonds

Lightly toast or roast the almonds. Grind coarsely. Mix with the flour, sugar, cinnamon, rinds and a little orange-flower water. Add just enough water to make a stiff dough. Knead slightly until well amalgamated and shape into ovals, approximately 17.5cm long by 5cm wide and 2cm thick (7x2x1in) . Place on greased and floured baking trays and bake at 375F/190C/ Gas 5 for about 20 minutes.

BISKUTTINI TAR-RAHAL

VILLAGE BISCUITS

4 eggs

350g/12oz caster or golden caster sugar

grated rind of both 12 lemon and 12 orange

3 drops real vanilla essence

pinch ground caraway or aniseed

500g/1lb 2oz self-raising flour

Separate the eggs. Whisk the whites until stiff and whisk in the sugar. Fold in the beaten yolks, orange and lemon rind, vanilla and spices. Some cooks also add a spoonful of apricot or other jam. Sieve the flour and fold it gently but thoroughly into the eggs until you have a pliable dough. Roll into little balls (dust your hands with semolina while you are doing this) and space them generously on a greased and floured baking sheet. Preheat the oven to 400F/ 200C/Gas 6 but reduce to 350F/180C/Gas 4 as soon as the biscuits are inserted. Bake for 20 minutes until a pale cream colour. Cool on racks and store in an airtight tin.

PRINJOLATA

PINE NUT CAKE

about 24 sponge fingers (boudoir biscuits) or biskuttini tar-rahal

100g/312oz unsalted butter

2 teaspoons icing sugar

1 tablespoon pine nuts or blanched almonds, chopped

Two separate portions American frosting, each made using:

200g/7oz caster sugar

pinch of cream of tartar

I egg white, beaten

2 drops vanilla essence

For the decoration:

50g/11/2oz pine nuts

10 glace cherries

25g/1oz bitter chocolate, melted

Grease a pudding basin or cake tin. Break each sponge finger in half.

Soften the butter, beat to a cream. Add icing sugar and beat until creamy and pale. Set aside.

For the first portion of American frosting dissolve the sugar in 75ml (21/2fl oz) water over a low heat. Shake the pan from time to time. Add the cream of tartar (dissolved in one teaspoon water), cover and bring to a boil. Remove lid and boil syrup steadily to 250F/116C (soft ball).

Stop from cooking any further by plunging the base of the pan in cold water, then pour the hot syrup in a steady stream into the egg white, whisking all the while until it holds a peak. Add vanilla essence.

Stir in the reserved butter cream immediately. Add the almonds. Coat each sponge finger with this mixture. Assemble them in the basin in concentric layers cemented by the cream filling. Smooth the top, cover and refrigerate overnight. Turn on to a serving dish.

Make a second portion of frosting; without extra butter cream. When ready, coat the entire prinjolata. Stud with pine nuts and cherries, then pour over melted chocolate in thin threads. For a less lurid appearance, use only pine nuts, with a few skinned pistachios.

QUBBAJT

MALTESE NOUGAT

800g/1lb 12oz caster sugar

300g/10oz roasted almonds or hazelnuts, or lightly roasted sesame seeds

1 teaspoon freshly powdered cinnamon

Oil a shallow baking tray and line first with greaseproof then a sheet of rice paper.

Dissolve the sugar in 250ml (8fl oz) water over a low heat in a heavy saucepan, shaking but not stirring. Boil to 325F/154C (crack).

Lightly grease a marble or other slab with a little oil mixed with water and spread the nuts or sesame seeds over it. Sprinkle the cinnamon, then pour the hot syrup over. Turn and work the mixture with two spatulas. When it starts to harden, spoon it into the rice paper case and leave to cool. Remove the greaseproof and leave the edible rice paper.

ZEPPOLI OR SFINEC TA-SAN GUZEPP

ST JOSEPH'S FRITTERS

125g/41/2oz strong flour

1 teaspoon caster sugar

100g/31/2oz butter

3 medium eggs, beaten

oil for deep frying

Malta honey

roasted almonds or hazelnuts, chopped

For the ricotta filling:

400g/14oz ricotta

50g/11/2oz bitter chocolate

100g/31/2oz candied orange and citron peel or glace cherries

50g/11/2oz icing sugar

100g/31/2oz blanched, roasted almonds or hazel nuts

Sift the flour and sugar on to greaseproof paper. Melt the butter in 250ml (8fl oz) water in a heavy pan. Bring to the boil and immediately tip in all the flour. Beat vigorously until the mixture comes away from the sides of the pan. Cool slightly. Add the eggs, a little at a time, beating very thoroughly for about 10 minutes, until you have a smooth, glossy paste. The mixture must not be too runny, keep back some of the egg if this appears a risk.

The traditional recipe is for deep frying, though zeppoli can also be baked. To deep fry, drop heaped teaspoons of the mixture into fresh boiling oil. Lift when golden and drain on kitchen paper. Otherwise, preheat the oven to 400F/200C/Gas 6. Grease a baking sheet then run it under cold water. This creates steam which helps the choux pastry to rise. Place heaped teaspoons well apart on the baking sheet. Place in the oven and after about five minutes increase the temperature to 425F/220C/ Gas 7 and cook for a further 10 minutes until risen and golden. Cool on a rack. Slit the pastry shells with a knife immediately and remove any uncooked, moist mixture from inside.

Prepare the filling: mash the ricotta; chop the chocolate, cherries or citrus peel, and the nuts; mix everything together. When cold, fill. Arrange on an attractive dish and trickle best Malta honey over them. Sprinkle with chopped, roasted almonds or hazelnuts.

MQARET

DATE-FILLED DIAMONDS

For the filling:

200g/7oz dates, stoned and chopped

1 teaspoon grated tangerine zest

1 teaspoon grated orange zest

pinch of powdered cloves

1 tablespoon anisette liqueur

1 tablespoon caster or icing sugar

For the pastry:

200g/7oz plain flour

50g/11/2oz butter

2 tablespoons water

oil for deep frying

caster sugar for dusting

Combine the dates and three tablespoons water in a saucepan. Stir over a low heat for four minutes. Remove from the heat and add all the other filling ingredients. Reserve.

Make the pastry by the rubbing-in method. Some cooks use one tablespoon orange-flower water (ilma zahar) and one tablespoon water for the liquid.

Roll out half the pastry at a time into a 40cm by 10cm (16x4in) rectangle. Spoon the filling down one side of the rectangle, leaving a small border. Damp the edges and fold over the pastry, pinching well to prevent the filling from running out. Repeat with rest of the pastry.

Cut these diagonally into 16 diamond-like parallelograms with a sharp knife and rest them in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.

Fry in deep hot oil until golden. They will darken as they cool. Drain on kitchen paper and sprinkle with caster sugar. It is also possible to bake these on a sheet in a hot oven.

XKUNVAT

CRISP PASTRY RIBBONS

200g/7oz plain flour with 1/2 teaspoon baking powder

25g/1oz butter

1 egg yoke

2 teaspoons sugar

3 tablespoons orange-flower water and/or brandy

Malta honey, coloured sugar or hundreds and thousands

Sieve the flour into a bowl and add the sugar. Rub in the butter until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Bind with the egg yolk, the orange- flower water or brandy, adding a tiny amount of water only if necessary. Roll the pastry out thinly and cut with a pastry wheel into strips approximately 1.25cm (1/2in) wide and 13cm (6in) long. Fry a few strips at a time, rolling each strip up tightly along its length just before dropping into the hot oil. The roll will unfurl, giving a spiral. Fry until golden. Drain well on kitchen paper, and cool.

Pile on a glass dish and trickle over good Malta honey. Decorate with coloured sugar or hundreds and thousands.

To make coloured sugar take a teaspoonful of sugar and put it in a cup. Put the tip of a skewer into a bottle of food colouring, then use it to stir the sugar. In this way you will not overdo the amount of colouring. The usual practice is to have two colours (red and green) and white.

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