09 December 2006

Sojourn through Malta, December 2006

Due to some unavoidable circumstances, I ended up in Malta for a week at the beginning of December 2006. As usual, I did my usual research by simply asking a friend who has lived there for a year or so and her curt advice was generally not to bother unless I liked esoteric modern glass works, eating fish or drinking a lot, not necessarily in that order. However, in the end, things were not as dire as that and it proved to be quite an interesting visit to a place steeped in history, with lots of curious buses, bad roads, friendly people and quite surprisingly good food.

The first thing one notices is that the Maltese tourist spots are rather like seedy versions of Brighton in England, or Zinnowitz in Ruegen, only bigger and warmer. However, the roads are invariably in a state of chronic disrepair and designed to twist the ankles of the unwary or test the suspension of your hire car. But the people are friendly, and even friendlier if you leave them tips. It is not unusual to have complete strangers "assist" you in finding a parking space and then holding a hand out for a coin or two. It seems that any Maltese can become a self-authorised parking assistant or tourist guide and they are generally so friendly that it seems impolite not to hand over a little silver every day to people who just loiter around car parks or tourist attractions. By the way, watch out for people selling you timeshares or excursion tickets. The timeshares are always ripoffs or scams and the excursions sold are not always for the specified time.

Outside of the tourist spots, Malta is, well, different. The whole island is practically a walled fort and has been for centuries, and the Maltese still seem to like to build walls. All over the countryside are fields and orchards divided by walls and crisscrossed by more walls, all painstakingly assembled from large chunks of limestone or local sandstone. Why they like walls so much is a bit of a mystery and when they are not building walls, the Maltese are building little solid sandstone forts all over the countryside as well.

Still, Malta can be very pretty and impressive, especially when viewed from the sea. Do a Captain Morgain excursion around the Grand Harbour and Marsamxetto Harbour to get a flavour of how stunningly secure Malta is as a fort and how beautiful it looks, especially in the sunset. The capital Valletta is a complete city within a fort, the only capital in the world to be such. More inland and on Gozo (an island north of Malta), one can find prehistoric hypogeums and temples that date back as far as 5,000 years BC, even older than the pyramids in Egypt. For a quick synopsis of what Malta is about, just attend the Malta Experience, an audio-visual show in Valletta, but it is also worth visiting some of the historic sites later.

But I digress. This is a food site and I have to say that the food in Malta is quite tolerable, if not actually pretty good and nearly always amazingly cheap. For example, it is at Bobbyland at the Dingli Cliffs where I had the best rabbit ever in my life, a superb fenek done with a fragrant garlic and wine sauce that complemented a supremely juicy whole wild rabbit. Normally I hate rabbit but Bobbyland had such a reputation that I had to try it there and I am so glad I did. Even the local red wine was quite tolerable and its dryness matched the rabbit well. My partner had bragioli, which is a little like a rind rouladen but stuffed with local Maltese sausage meat. It was also very good, but not as good as the fenek. Both dishes together, including drinks, costed less than 25 Euro, by the way. However, a little warning is in order. I was later wandering around Valletta and was convinced by an earnest Maltese lady to try fenek again at her "original" Maltese restaurant. The only differences I can find are (a) her version had potatoes boiled with the stew, and (b) it tasted horrible, exactly the dry grassy-gamy rabbit meat that I hate. I had to get out and (i) drink a coffee (ii) eat a vanilla cake and (iii) drink a milkshake, to get rid of the aftertaste.

The normal Maltese breakfast, available practically everywhere, is the standard English fry-up; eggs, sausages, bacon, toast and beans, plus coffee, tea or fruit juice. It is somewhat better and cheaper than in England but the sausages, being Maltese, have a different taste and does not have so much rusk as in England. I rather like it but it is not something I can have every day. It is ridiculously cheap though, less than 5 Euro in general, and less than 2.50 Euro in some places!

As fish is such a staple dish in Malta, for a true experience of it, I was recommended to Tal Familja in Marsascala. The lampuki was out so I had to settle for cerna, a lovely silvery fish with firm white meat, filleted beautifully in sauce meuniere with roast potatoes and steamed vegetables. I also tried the same fish at another restaurant near St Paul's Bay but it was not nearly as good, even though it was more expensive, although I guess that is to be expected.

I was walking around Xemxija Hill one evening, which in the low season, is a dusty moribund district full of empty restaurants and bars and where the only people around are those scuttling away in cars. To my amazement, I saw a line of cars parked outside Zeus, a Greek restaurant that advertises a 10-dish meze for less than 15 Euro. So I strolled in and ended up having a surprisingly good meal of fried zucchini and charcoal-grilled kotixia (quail) on tomato rice. Which goes to show that it is always a good idea to follow the locals.

Because it looks so wholesome, one night I bought a Maltese loaf, a round crusty bread costing less than half a Euro. So here is a simple sandwich idea which will provide ample sustenance as a lunch or picnic snack: Cut 2 thickish slices of Maltese loaf. Spread 2 squares of French Kiri cream cheese on one of the slices. Layer 3 slices of Parma ham on top of the cheese and close with the other slice. And that's it! Great, especially when washed down with a beer.

I also wandered over to Gozo, a smaller calmer island north of Malta. It's a pretty place, lots of greenery, agriculture and even nicer people. Here one can see the world's oldest upright structures created by man, a strange double temple where I guess prehistoric man used to have BBQs and chew the fat around muddy cups of grass tea after work or something. In Gozo, the centre of food is Xlendi and I was there especially to try It-Tmun, only to be annoyed and disappointed as we arrived 1 minute after last orders at 2 pm. Discussing this with the manager proved pointless so we repaired to Zafiro, a newish-looking place on Xlendi Promenade. This proved to be a very good move as they served a wonderful lampuki, bordered by fresh mussels cooked in white wine. Despite looking a lot like mackerel, lampuki tastes more like grouper, not oily at all, firm delicious white meat simply cooked in butter and garlic sauce.

On returning from Gozo, we stopped at Arches in Mellieha, reputed to be the best restaurant in Malta. Perhaps I had raised the expectations bar a little too high, but for me, such a reputation would remain a subjective matter rather than fact. Saying that, the atmosphere and service is good, the decor is elegant and more classy than other Maltese places and the wine list was surprisingly good, with even Petrus available for around 1375 Euro a bottle. Yes, it is that sort of place. But, none of the fish was fresh and all the meat is not local either, with the lamb and beef coming from New Zealand and the fowl from other European countries. Oh well.

We also had dinner one night in Bacchus, a huge sprawling restaurant that takes up a twelveth of the fortress town of Mdina. Passable food (but a little over-ambitiously creative), good ambience as the main public restaurant was located in interesting gunpowder vaults built in the 17th and 18th centuries, and nice friendly service. Definitely a place to sample if you are ever in Mdina but not worth a special trip just for the food.

Pretty much all of my pictures taken in Malta can be seen here, and following are recommendations and some places where I have dined:

Zafiro, Xlendi Promenade, Xlendi, Gozo. Linked to San Andrea Hotel which looks a cool place to stay in Gozo.

It-Tmun, Xlendi, Gozo.

Tal-Familja, Triq il-Gardiel, Marsascala, Malta.

Bacchus, Inguanez Street, Mdina, Malta.

Arches, Millieha, opposite Maritim Hotel, Malta.

Bobbyland, Dingli Cliffs, Malta. Best rabbit (fenek) ever.

It-Rizzu, near seafront, Marsaxlokk, Malta.