Food in Malta may not rank as gourmet cuisine, but it is very reasonably priced and there are plenty of places to choose from. Beyond the proliferation of pizzerias, pasta houses and snack bars, there are occasional gourmet restaurants and a good range of places serving fresh fish. The latter can be anything from family-run seaside cafés to fully-fledged restaurants which entice you in with their tanks full of live lobsters. Menus are almost always translated into English. The following are a few of the local dishes which you may come across if you happen to eat in restaurants serving Maltese cuisine.
High standards of cuisine were introduced to Malta by the Knights. Food came high on the list of priorities for this supposedly monastic and frugal order. To serve their tastes, chefs were shipped in from abroad, wine flowed in from France and ice was imported from the snowy peak of Mount Etna, on the island of Sicily.
Foreign influences still play a major role in Maltese cuisine. The island’s close proximity to Italy has inevitably determined its favourite dish of pasta; the British left their mark in the form of roast beef, apple pie and fish and chips.
The real local dishes, however, have the unmistakable stamp of the Mediterranean. Essential ingredients are the local herbs and vegetables, such as sun-ripened tomatoes, green peppers, marrows, aubergines and artichokes. Made into bulky Maltese soups, and eaten with the local crusty bread, these make a more than adequate meal.
Fish is abundant and comes steamed, braised or grilled. choose from sea bream, swordfish, grouper, tuna, pilot fish, amberjack, prawns, lobsters – and many more. Autumn brings the lampuka, a fish that breeds near the Nile Delta and swarms around the Maltese coast in September and October. The somewhat enigmatic taste has been compared to cod, mackerel and whitebait! It is perhaps best tasted in the form of lampuka pie, cooked with tomatoes, onions, parsley, peas and cauliflower, then encased in crispy pastry.
Among Malta’s few regional meat dishes is bragioli, similar to beef olives, made with thin slices of beef wrapped round a minced meat, egg and bacon stuffing. Done well it is delicious.
A favourite and long-established Maltese dish is rabbit. This is served in a variety of forms, which you can taste by going out for a traditional fenkate (or ‘rabbit evening’). This stars with spaghetti in rabbit sauce, followed by a fried rabbit or rabbit stew (complete with liver and kidneys); the meal ends with nuts and figs. Ideally you should experience this in a basic country bar full of villagers and wash it down with lots of local wine. The village of Mgarr on Malta is the place to try it.
The majority of Malta’s restaurants serve Italian food and range from basic pasta houses to 4-star restaurants. In addition there are pubs and cafés serving typical British fare, a smattering of ethnic restaurants (particularly in St Julian’s), a small handful of top-notch French restaurants and a multitude of fast-food outlets. Simple local villages bars, often a stone’s throw from the village church, can produce some surprisingly wholesome meals at rock-bottom prices.
Gbejna sheep’s milk cheese, served either fresh, half-dried or peppered. A speciality of Gozo, this comes in small rounds and is excellent with the local bread and tomatoes.
Maltese bread (hobz) is very crusty on the outside and soft inside. According to a national newspaper survey the average daily consumption is a kilo of bread per person! If you taste the real thing, made by traditional methods (as still used in Qormi) you will probably understand why.
The general rule of thumb is to avoid the very cheapest local wines. Move up a couple of price brackets (which will still work out far cheaper than choosing an imported Italian brand) and you may be pleasantly surprised. The two largest local wine producers are Marsovin and Emmanuel Delicata. Well worth trying are the Marsovin Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot Noir (reds) and their Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and the slightly sweeter Sauvignon Blanc (whites). Delicata also produces Cabernet Sauvignon and some excellent Chardonnay and Trebbiano. Maltese restaurants also offer competitively priced European and New World wines. Be very wary of the strong Gozitian wines – 14° is not uncommon though the alcoholic content is rarely shown on the bottle. Many restaurant owners make their own wine or have it made especially for them. It is certainly worth trying, though you may end up (like some of the locals) adding 7-Up to disguise the taste! Farson’s Blue label and Hopleaf beers, made from British hops and drunk for years by British servicemen, are excellent.