A Study in Silence: Malta’s Understated Gastronomy

A Study in Silence: Malta’s Understated Gastronomy

Golden pastries, artisan gelato and just-caught seafood from the bobbing boats in the harbour. Take a taste-tour to discover Malta’s understated gastronomy.

The article first appears in Vol. 29:

home late one night through the shadowy streets of
Mdina, Malta‘s
“Silent City”, we notice a triangle of light pouring from a
doorway. Just inside, a tray of golden pastries ecked with giant
sugar crystals blocks the threshold, balancing on a battered metal
stool. Behind them, two men in flour-dusted vests and gold chains
shovel a giant, duvet-like mound of dough into a wooden container,
while a row of dented baking trays hum in the oven. We had taken a
convoluted route home, abandoning the maps on our phones in favour
of weaving our way blindly through the city’s maze of cobblestone

Living up to its name, Mdina at night presents itself like a
secret – a locked chest of latched windows, empty alleyways and
tightly closed doors. In the midst of all the silence, this little
bakery appears like a glowing invitation on the street corner. We
squeeze past the trays and go inside, where the two bakers blink at
us before confidently explaining: ”We have the city’s best bread.
Come back in the morning when it’s fresh.” We ask them if they will
be baking all night. “Yes, of course,” one of them replies,
finishing off his last drops of coffee. “We are here every night.
The city needs bread.”

In truth, we had come to Malta with very little idea of what the
country had to offer in the way of food. Like most people, we were
more familiar with images of its deep jewel waters, windswept stone
formations, art-filled churches and ancient cities than its
cuisine. After a week of exploring the Maltese archipelago in a
jittery old car, it became clear that the true way to taste the
region is to give up trying to find the newest, shiniest
restaurants (there aren’t many) and instead engage with the
everyday eating rituals of its inhabitants. This is a place where
friends gather under blinking strip lights in faded bakeries, eat
freshly caught shrimp at dated restaurants in church squares and
make use of local markets brimming with produce ripened by the
island’s 300 days of sun a year.

Much like its rugged landscape, Malta’s food scene is something
that takes time to understand. Unlike neighbouring Sicily, where
food is at the centre of everything, here in Malta it is enjoyed in
simpler ways: hidden behind doorways, burrowed in underground
vaults or deep inside family homes. The best moments of our trip
were spent with locals passionate about perfecting their craft and
shedding light on the real, honest food of the islands, including
natural winemakers, shermen and bakers sending us home with the
promise of fresh bread in the morning. Food is wound quietly into
the fabric of everyday life here, rarely shouted about or
overworked – which makes these rare moments even more

We never did find out the name of that bakery…

Day 1

Valletta is Malta’s miniature capital, built atop the thirsty
rocks of the Sciberras Peninsula with the golden stones of its
Grand Harbour plunging into the Mediterranean. We wake up at Casa
Ellul, a Victorian-era palazzo-turned-boutique hotel filled with
restored tiles, concrete walls and velvet nishes. The soaring dome
of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Basilica heaves over our little
terrace, filling our room with the sound of bells and forcing us
out of bed and into the sun.

After a head-spinning cold brew at Lot Sixty One Coffee Roasters
just down the road, we spend the morning losing our way in
Valletta’s web of streets, which are lined with wood-panelled
apothecaries and tiny shops selling handmade lace and
candy-coloured plastic statues of the Virgin Mary. So much of the
city feels untouched by contemporary trends, happily snoozing away
in the sun while the shopfronts fade – and look all the more
beautiful for it. Exploring the city navigation-free, we soon
discover how easy it is to end up at the water’s edge, pulled along
by the narrow streets until they simply run out.

Following a mid-morning scoop of Sicilian pistachio ice cream
from Arena, a Verona-born ice-cream stall (whose vendor urged us to
“tell your friends!”), we scoop almonds from a wooden drawer at
George Zammit, an emerald-fronted spice shop filled with sacks of
beans, spices and dried herbs with the heady scent of anise rising
off of every surface. Classic confectionary shops, such as the
gold-dipped Caffe Cordina, sell almond tarts, crumbly cannoli and
cakes dressed in hot-pink and peppermint- green icing. “This is the
land of honey,” a waiter proudly tells us, as we tuck into a
Maltese honey ring. Elegant old women prop themselves at the
marble-topped tables beside us, sipping espresso and patting cake
crumbs of their lips with linen napkins.

We push the car to its limits that afternoon, tackling the
potholes on the path to St Peter’s Pool. Here, swimmers stretch out
on a near-perfect semicircle of smooth sandstone, diving off its
sharp edge into the clear-blue water.

Afterwards, we wander the waterfront of Marsaxlokk, a
traditional shing village known for its daily open-air market.
Primary-coloured shing boats no bigger than a park bench bob in the
Roman-era harbour, while no-frills seafood restaurants serve
freshly caught fish best enjoyed with a cold pint of Cisk lager, as
one sherman tells us.

We forget what nature can teach us, and what we can get back from it. Gozo is the perfect place for people to come and reconnect. And sometimes they just never leave.

Patti, owner of Thirtyseven

Day 2

Just 20 minutes from Malta by boat, the island of Gozo feels
much further away from its bigger sister – and, in many ways, from
anywhere else on Earth. The sun-cracked land, ancient citadel and
whisper-quiet villages are watched over by a statue of Christ, who
stands open-armed at the top of Tas-Salvatur Hill.

We drive straight to Thirtyseven, a boutique hotel hidden down a
dusty side road in the village of Munxar. This 400-year-old
farmhouse is run by Patti and Giuseppe, two ex-fashion industry
professionals who fell in love with Gozo’s “mystical beauty” on
their first visit. All 37 rooms are designed by Patti, who also
sells wares from her travels in a vaulted on-site shop. Light,
healthy meals are made using fresh catches and local produce in the
tangerine-coloured kitchen, and at breakfast the glassy dining room
fills with the smell of freshly baked apple cake, ginger cookies,
coffee and still-hot madeleines. After encouraging us to “be lazy
for a while”, Patti leaves us by the pool in the garden, where
butter flies dart between palm and pomegranate trees.

This little hideaway, with its contemporary art and plush colour
palette, seems to hint at Gozo’s quiet glamour. “Artists, sculptors
and musicians are drawn here. A lot of people are mesmerised by
it,” Patti tells us. “People have gardens, the sea, all this
beautiful light. We forget what nature can teach us, and what we
can get back from it. Gozo is the perfect place for people to come
and reconnect. And sometimes they just never leave.”

At lunchtime she points us in the direction of Mġarr ix-Xini, a
glittering bay at the end of another treacherous path. People
gather on crooked tables at its simple restaurant to eat the
island’s freshest mackerel, red snapper and sword fish, grilled at
the water’s edge by the sherman who owns it.

Back at the hotel, Patti piles us into her turquoise Jeep and
drives us to the northern edge of the island. We climb the rocks
around Dwejra Bay before driving past Qbajjar Bay to the Xwejni
Salt Pans. Sparkling salt emerges from pools of seawater on a
chequerboard of stone-cut Roman pans.

“It looks like the moon. I don’t think there’s anywhere on Earth
that has water this colour,” she says, looking past the pans
towards the sea as the sky turns lilac. A few swimmers bob in the
water, while their dogs trot along the rocks beside them. “This
island is magical when you give it time. It can heal you.”

Day 3

After scaling the vertical footpath that leads to it, the cool,
clear water of Wied il-Għasri is something of a reward on a hot
day. This narrow bay is hugged by craggy rocks and underwater
caves, with tangles of caper bushes (and the odd adventurous
climber) clinging to its edges. We leave our things in a pile on
the pebbles and swim up the deep corridor of water until it opens
up into the sea, returning a while later to find ourselves
completely alone.

With salty hair and a sun-induced thirst, we make a pit stop at
the Lord Chambray taprooms. This local craft brewery makes beer “to
be a companion to everyday life in Malta”, naming each brew after
one of Gozo’s natural beauty spots. With the distinct feeling that
we could happily stay on the island for the rest of the year, we
finally wrench ourselves away and return to the hotel to pack up to

On the way to the ferry with Patti we stop off at Gleneagles
Bar, where local shermen drink amber ale under a ceiling of antique
diving nets and fish sculptures. “You should see how wild it gets
in here sometimes!” she laughs, patting owner Tony on the arm.

Natural wine has an energy, a certain magic – it’s alive. This is a kind of alchemy.

Mark, natural winemaker

Day 4

“Where is everyone?” we ask each other, walking back to the car
past the locked-up shopfronts and empty squares of Cospicua’s
centre. Back in Malta, we’d spent the day exploring the “Three
Cities”, a triangle of sleepy harbourside neighbourhoods peppered
with limestone buildings and peach-domed churches. Our last stop is
Senglea, where we eat delicate plates of fish and yogurt-topped
vegetables at Hammett’s Maċina, a restaurant on the waterfront
adorned in brass and marble.

In Valletta that night we sip dangerously strong paloma
cocktails on the steps outside hairdresser-turned-bar Cafe Society
before heading to the stone vaults of Noni. This restored bakery
serves Maltese classics with a gourmet twist, silencing us with
bowls of fennel-flecked pappardelle, grilled octopus and roasted

Day 5

We end our journey in Mdina’s car-free centre, a 4,000-year-old
city entered through a grand baroque gate where marble angels float
above lemon-yellow doorways on streets lit by gas lamps. It’s easy
to get lost in this strange, quiet place – and we do, working up an
appetite as we stumble through its chipped alleyways and cobbled
side streets.

We end up in the queue at Crystal Palace, a bar where locals
crowd around sticky plastic tables beneath blinking television
screens. According to many, this is the place for the island’s best
pastizzi, the ubiquitous Maltese pastry traditionally stuffed with
ricotta or peas. We pay 60 cents for two, which are slid into paper
bags straight from the oven’s blackened baking trays.

Earlier that day we’d driven uphill from the little town of
Siġġiewi to Mar Casar winery, where owner Mark Cassar ushers us
inside holding a pipe, his hair a storm cloud of grey. Using the
ancient methods of Georgian winemakers, he produces a small range
of natural wines using earthenware “kvevri” (vessels) buried
beneath sand in his cellar. Eighteen years ago, while suffering
from severe depression, Mark began taking walks along the sea.
Invigorated by the landscape, he bought three hectares of farmland
overlooking the water and began experimenting with natural
winemaking. “Just like that, I stopped taking my medication – and
here we are,” he tells us, sloshing amber- coloured wine into our
glasses. “Natural wine has an energy, a certain magic – it’s alive.
This is a kind of alchemy.”

After a few too many glasses (“it leaves your system in 20
minutes”, Mark insists), he walks us up the hill to his vineyard,
where long twists of grapevines grow beside wild herbs and prickly
pears. We stay there for a while listening to his stories, watching
him scoop up the earth in his hands and pick olives from the trees
with the whole of Malta spread out below us. He pushes a bunch of
yellow wild-fennel flowers into our hands. Their sweet, aromatic
scent lingers on our clothes for days.

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