“On the long dinner table a field of food waved yellow in the dim light of dusk. The Cuban prepared deep fried pork rinds like they did in Cuba, but the rest of it was Maltese stuff; cold pasta, timpana, Maltese bread and sausages, aljolli, and saucers with olives and capers.”
The above is a quote from a novel I’m currently writing called Once Upon a Time in Cuba. For the context of this blog you don’t need to know what the novel is about; what you do need to know here is that this novel has a lot of food in it. Maltese food. Old Maltese food. And drink. Lots of drink. The kind of fare that’s becoming harder and harder to find.
The novel, as the title implies, draws a lot of parallels between Malta and Cuba. There are similarities between the two distant isles: both are small islands on the doorstep of large, powerful continents, both are countries with a long history, and both countries have an indigenous cuisine immersed in the history of its people, poor people, for the most part. To understand Maltese cuisine one thing needs be said: the Maltese haven’t been prosperous for very long. For many centuries the only rich people on the island were the foreign occupiers and the locals affiliated with them. Most of the population were struggling farmers and fishermen. These are the roots of most of our staple dishes.
Minestra, our rustic Maltese bread, rabbit meat, cheap cuts of offal like tripe and liver, and a wild assortment of soups like kusksu and widow’s soup made with the readily available produce. Every single food I’ve mentioned here has its own history. Like tripe; it used to be sold down at the harbour right after a pig was slaughtered in the abattoir, sold cheaply and quickly for the harbour workers. Widow’s soup, named for the fact that it was so cheap even widows could afford to make it, is a coarse, hearty, unsophisticated dish, with coarsely chopped vegetables and large lumps of goat’s cheese thrown in – a soup that stands alone as a meal all by itself. And there are is a wealth of other culinary tales, to be sure.
And these are all tales you can only find – more or less – in Malta. So why is it so God-damn hard to find them in Malta? Why are other countries embracing their culinary heritage whilst we seemed to be discarding our endemic food-heritage?
When I was in Madrid, a city with little major landmarks, and thus a city which left you lots of free-time for the good stuff, is teeming with endemic diversity. Old bars serving a broad range of tapas, from callos, which is, surprise surprise, tripe soup, tiny baguettes filled with morcilla, blood sausage, churros, a fantastically satisfying chocolate snack, and that’s without even mentioning what you can find in the Mercado San Miguel – all the best food gathered in one culinary Mecca. Where’s Malta’s San Miguel?
Yesterday I attended a literary event in Valletta, an open mic held at Camarata, a kinky gathering for young, artistic minds. Before going there we went for a walk around Valletta looking for something light to eat. Not a meal – I was making tarja, pasta omelette, back at home – just a filling snack to soak up the beers later.
I fancied a ftira. Or a hobz biz-zejt. Or maybe some mqaret, fried dates. Perfect, savoury, greasy pick-me-ups. But of course none of the kind of places that serve these things stay open beyond lunch-time in Valletta. I walked round and round and all I could see was depressingly chic, annoyingly green hipster bars selling vegan wine (whatever that is), organic this, gluten-free that, I don’t know, lactose-free tables… you get the picture. And it is a depressing one.
Desperate, I decided to forego a seated snack and go for the old faithful: a pastizzi shop, the one near the Suq, behind the Grandmaster’s Palace. And I can’t begin to tell you the revolt I felt when I saw that it had been turned into a noodle bar! My pastizzi shop – a noodle bar! I felt like the Maltese must have felt when Napoleon’s troops began pillaging the churches to melt the gold and silver treasures within. Except this was worse, because food trumps religion, always, hands-down, no? I found myself thinking – who do I have to fuck to get a pastizz in the capital city of Malta!
Of course I love the top quality restaurants that are opening in Valletta – in Malta in general. We do have a vibrant, kicking, beating, culinary scene. But it does lack diversity. I’m not saying Chinese restaurants, Brazilian, etc. I mean diversity in thought, presentation, aesthetics. Walk down the resurgent Strait Street and you’ll go past identical bar after identical bar, all shabby-chic, retro, Baroque places that serve over-priced Maltese platters which you could get for free in a kazin and playing re-hashed jazz. It was exciting at first. Now it’s tiring. And that’s not even mentioning the sprawling hipster invasion, the bars which sell craft beers and no Cisk, places with over-priced unrecognisable food, and all made up to look like a Yoga bar-cum-vinyl shop. It might be for someone, clearly, they are popular, but it’s not for me. It’s old already.
I’ll gladly go to some of ridiculously good restaurant like Bahia, Brass and Knuckle, Ali Baba or Chukkas. But, you know how it is, you don’t always fancy a big, formal meal. You just want to go for something quick and disgustingly good. And there are places, local, honest places, where you can go to around Malta. Like the legendary Crystal Palace in Rabat, the old, family-run Café Riche in Birgu, and just about any political-party kazin on the island – these are places where you don’t just go to eat and drink, you go there for chaos, disorder, that inspiring randomness you won’t find in tightly-run eateries. Good, true places. But then, why are they on the decline instead of on the rise? Especially in Valletta. Why aren’t they being taken care of, revived, nurtured, instead they are all being turned into something they’re not, something you can find anywhere else in the Mediterranean?
“Their sun-blistered faces smiled coarsely, their decades-old moustaches had beer dripping from their tips that looked like dew dripping off a wilting rosemary plant. Small plates with fresh Maltese bread, peanuts and butter beans were scattered round the cramped tables, mostly untouched, as if it was emasculating to be seen eating – even if the food is free.”
Where are these kinds of places?
I do realise I am sounding like some kind of food-fascist. And trust me I’m not. I’m the same with my food as I am with my politics: liberal. I enjoy most, when I cook at home, trying out a dish from a far-flung part of the world, like when I try Iranian fesenjoon, Vietnamese pho, Moroccan tagine, or Florentine-style tripe. I like to cook what people around the world cook in their homes – not necessarily what they go out to eat. But, and this is also the same as politics: progress should not preclude diversity. Progress should build on what came before, not stomp on it. Culinary culture evolves to suit the clime and needs of a place, which means, for better or worse, it works.