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In Malta, the past is always present in its churches, streets and food. Writer Helen Cordery takes us on a tour.
Text by: Helen Cordery
Country: Malta

n the surface, Malta is a tiny island in the Mediterranean that is visited by European holiday-makers in droves thanks to its decent prices, azure blue waters, warm weather and friendly locals. But Malta is so much more interesting than just beaches: it’s swayed the fate of the world twice, boasts the planet’s oldest free-standing structures, and was once called home by one of history’s most powerful organizations, the Knights Hospitaller of St. John.

For three tiny islands, Malta, Gozo and Comino pack a substantial punch. For starters, the local language, Malti, is said to be the only living link to the language of the Phoenicians, an ancient seafaring people who settled in Malta around 750 B.C. It’s considered to be a linguistically fascinating amalgamation of Arabic and Italian with a smattering of French and English thrown into the mix.

My grandmother describes it as “Arabic in an Italian accent, with a few English words that you’ll recognize.” It is the only language of Semitic origin that is written in a Latin alphabet. Sometimes words that are originally English are given a twist, for example evaluation becomes evalwazzjoni. But while these words sound Italian, they are completely unique to Malta and bear no resemblance to their Italian counterparts.

The country also spent 180 years under British rule, until 1964. Many traces of Britain remain across the islands, from telephone boxes to high street stores. Also some 2,500 English words have been adopted into Malti. Today English is an official language, and many Maltese are bilingual, which is evident from the huge helping of language academies.

I am connected to Malta because my great-grandfather, like so many others, met and fell in love with a Maltese woman. They later went on to marry and have children, one of whom was my grandmother. The family emigrated to England when my grandmother was 12 and despite living the rest of her life in England, my grandmother would return to Malta nearly every year as an adult. My mother and I loved the presents she would bring home, such as Malta’s famous lace or numerous items depicting the Maltese Cross, its national symbol.

History, sun and more

After growing up hearing stories of delicious bread and sweets, I decided to visit the islands for myself in 2005.

There is really nothing that prepares you for seeing an entire country from the sky, especially when it is only 315 square kilometres. There is also nothing that prepares you for Valletta, Malta’s capital city, which seems so connected to the past that every step feels like walking past ghosts as well as the living.

Walking down the narrow streets beneath jutting intricate balconies and with the sound of the sea ever present was like every fantasy I’d ever had of Europe. Every few hundred metres there was another church, each one as majestic and historic as the last. Restaurants competed for customers alongside museums that were packed to the rafters with items dedicated to displaying Malta’s mind-boggling past.

In fact, Valletta is one of the best spots to soak up history given that it was home to both the European Allies and the Knights of St. John.

In 1565, the Ottoman Empire was rapidly expanding, and Malta’s resident Knights were mainland Europe’s only barrier. While the Knights were not generally liked by the Maltese, they did help protect the islands from North African slavers, who at one time took the entire population of Gozo—some 5,000 men, women, and children—as slaves.

The Great Siege was the Ottoman Empire’s ultimate attempt to eradicate the Knights and then spread into Christian Europe. It was one of the world’s most notable historical events, and even Voltaire wrote that “nothing is better known than the siege of Malta.” The Ottomans were not successful and retreated with some 10,000 to 30,000 dead. A third of the Knights and a third of the Maltese were killed, and the peninsulas of Birgu and Senglea were destroyed. Valletta was then built as the ultimate example of defence—a fortified city atop Mt. Sciberras. With Malta strengthened, the Ottomans never attacked again, meaning that they were unable to penetrate further into Europe.

Delicious food everywhere

Besides soaking up history and sun, one cannot ignore Malta’s culinary delights. The typical dishes mix together the islands different cultural influences—particularly from nearby Sicily—while also taking into account the limits of growing in so small and dry a climate. So the emphasis is upon local produce that grow well in an arid environment, such as tomatoes and olives.

One of the highlights of my experiences eating out was a pie made up of Lampuki, or dolphinfish, which swims between Malta and Gozo from August to November. My grandmother told me that recipes for lampuki are different in every household and are passed down from mother to daughter through the generations, meaning that no dishes are quite the same.

Equally delicious is a bite of Timpana, which is usually served on Christmas Day. Every morsel of this macaroni, tomato and mince-stuffed pastry is like stepping back in time to the days when food was taken to local bakeries and cooked in the village ovens.

My strongest memory is of the smell of the Pastizzi, which wafts down the same alleys as it did during the days of the Holy Inquisition in the 18th century. These phenomenally popular pastry and ricotta snacks are served everywhere by everyone, from the traditional recipes to updated modern versions that play with flavours and combinations.

I am also particularly fond of rabbit stew, or fenkata, which I have eaten on every trip to Malta because not only is it tasty, but it’s also regarded proudly as the national dish. Rabbit has a long history on Malta—it was once so popular that the Knights of St. John banned hunting it because there were so few left on the islands.

These dishes are simple but carefully prepared and the taste is exquisite.

No trip to Malta is complete without trying Kinnie, a locally made soft drink of bitter oranges and herbs that is guzzled down with passion. It’s loved so much that expats have taken it abroad. Even Australia, which has a huge population of Maltese residents, has a bottling plant.

I love Malta. It’s not like anywhere else on Earth because it’s a prime example of the present living alongside the past—or the past living in the present. It’s a puzzling place if you expect things to follow the rules—whether they be linguistic or culinary or historical. It’s a place where you can soak up some rays on a beach that supposedly shipwrecked St. Paul, where you can find religion beneath huge church domes and postcard-perfect cathedrals and where you can still eat food that is prepared with love and care.

Where else can you wander down curving streets without a car in sight or walk over stones previously trod by corsairs and knights? Malta is the perfect juxtaposition of the modern and ancient, and this is evident everywhere and in everything. More importantly this is the home of my ancestors, the people that gave me my grandmother, and who today have made a barren rock into a place that is warm, welcoming, and full of smiles.

All about Malta

Capital city: Valletta

Official languages: Maltese and English

Religion: Roman Catholic

Total Area: 316 km²

Population: 445,426 (2014 census)



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Tiny island, big historical impact

European holiday-makers visit Malta every year because of its decent prices, azure blue waters, warm weather and friendly locals. Malta is a tiny island in the Mediterranean with beautiful beaches, but also great history. Twice it influenced the fate of the world, it has the planet's oldest free-standing structures, and was home to one of history's most powerful organizations, the Knights Hospitaller of St. John.
The local language is Malti and it is the only living link to the language of the Phoenicians. The British ruled Malta for 180 years and left many traces of their presence such as telephone boxes and high street stores and also many English words that are now part of the Malti language.

My great-grandfather was an Englishman who met and fell in love with a Maltese woman. They married and had many children, one of them was my grandmother. When my grandmother was 12 the family emigrated to England. Although my grandmother spent the rest of her life in England, she often visited Malta and brought back beautiful presents.

I visited the islands in 2005 and learned much of its history, such as The Great Siege. This was the Ottoman Empire’s final attempt to eradicate the Knights and then spread into Christian Europe. Fortunately they were not successful.

Aside from the beaches and the history, Malta also has some fabulous food. I love eating a pie made with Lampuki, or dolphinfish. My grandmother says each household has its own recipes that are passed down through the generations.

I love Malta. It's not like anywhere else on Earth because it's a prime example of the present living alongside the past. More importantly this is the home of my ancestors, the home of my grandmother, and a place that is warm, welcoming, and full of smiles.

 

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