Stuck precariously in the Mediterranean, Malta’s strategic position between Europe and Africa and oh so close to the Middle East has resulted in a long line of occupiers and immigrants over the centuries. These newcomers all brought with them their own cultures, languages and of course food. Over time, this steady stream of people created the entirely unique and somewhat unusual Malta we know and love today. Sure we are familiar with the beaches and the amazing history found in Valletta, but Maltese food doesn’t usually get as much attention, which is a shame because from experience I can tell you that it is delicious. So I decided to take a look at a few of my favorite bites I enjoyed during my visit. This isn’t intended to be an encyclopedia of Maltese food nor is it guaranteed to highlight the best dishes on the islands. No, it’s just a look at a few foods I enjoyed in particular, and which helped define my time in this beautiful country.
I’m a weird and picky eater, it’s just who I am and while it confuses some folks I’ve accepted it. So when it comes to tomato products, I like them in sauce form but not in whole fruit form. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed this Maltese specialty so much. While it has a lot of fresh, tomato flavor, it’s in a form that’s easy and enjoyable to eat. Don’t confuse conserva with a simple tomato jam. It’s more than that. At it’s simplest, conserva is essentially tomato paste. But it’s a much-reduced version and one that is usually homemade using the best tomatoes possible. The result is a jam-like substance that tastes like an explosion of summer. It’s light, delicious and the perfect accompaniment to almost everything, which is how the Maltese use it. I saw it most often served along with some piping hot bread before the start of a meal. A local but delicious appetizer to whet the appetite before the main culinary show begins.
2. Gozo cheese
Like many other destinations along the Mediterranean, the Maltese have a fierce love of cheese, specifically goat cheese. The best in the country comes from the island of Gozo, the second largest in the archipelago and a place known for its more pastoral way of life. There shepherds have been making their own version of cheese for generations, crafting it in the mornings and selling it in the afternoons. You can’t get any fresher than that. When I visited a local cheese maker I saw not just the pride he took in his work, but he also had a tremendous love of cheese. I asked him if he ever got tired of it and he laughed and replied, “No, of course not. It’s too good!” Gozo cheese comes in a variety of flavors, anything from spicy crushed pepper to red hot peppers; the cheese just absorbs the flavors and creates something truly special in return. My favorite way to enjoy the cheese was in its plain variety, which was then wrapped into fresh ravioli by the cheese monger himself. There’s nothing better than enjoying freshly made pasta where every ingredient was delicately prepared the same day.
This is on everyone’s list of ‘must eats’ in Malta, and with good reason. If Malta had a national dish, this would be it. Following the tradition of savory pies around the world, pastizzi are oval shaped pastries made from filo dough and stuffed with a variety of different ingredients, but ricotta or mushy peas are the most common. You will find these all over Malta and they vary just as widely in quality. Try to avoid pastizzi found in touristy areas and instead seek out local pastizzi bakers in the residential neighborhoods. This is where you’ll find the real delicacy and I guarantee it’ll be worth the effort. Pastizzi are inexpensive and delicious and for me were my go-to, cheap and easy meal on Malta.
Malta may be small but that doesn’t mean they haven’t developed their own unique ways of doing things, especially when it comes to beverages. There are several wineries found around the island chain and Gozo in particular makes some excellent wines. Visit the Ta Mena winery on Gozo or their shop in Valletta to learn more about this family run business.
Perhaps thanks to the Italian influence, coffee is also an important part of the Maltese experience. Just like the Italians, Maltese love a great coffee and even have their own unique take on it. Maltese coffee is a little different from what you’re used to and it may take a few cups before you start to appreciate it. Maltese coffee is spiced using a variety of different ingredients and is then mixed with water and cooked for 30 minutes or so. Flavors of chicory, aniseed and even cloves steam out of the mug and it is a great way to finish a typically large Maltese dinner.
Although I have a fierce sweet tooth, I didn’t have the opportunity to try very many deserts during my time on Malta, but I did seek out this traditional and delicious pastry. Imqaret is fairly simple too, it’s a deep fried pastry filled with delicious dates. It’s cut into diamond shapes and is pretty easy to find everywhere, from markets to fine dining restaurants. Like so many other parts of the Maltese culture, imqaret has an Arabic origin; visitors to Tunisia and Morocco will immediately recognize the gentle flavors of dates, aniseed and even bay leaf found in this delicious desert.
These are just a few of the many foods I particularly enjoyed in Malta. Have you visited? What foods did you discover?
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