Malta – An Island Celebration – As a child I was lucky enough to live, for a few years, in Malta. The Maltese Islands still hold my happiest childhood memories, and I’ve managed to return for a few visits as an adult. If you’re also a fan of these honey-coloured islands that are layered – literally – with history, you’ll love this recently published cookbook and gloriously photographed (by the author) travelogue: Malta by Simon Bajada, published by Hardie Grant £26.
Many empires have influenced the Maltese kitchen over the centuries, leaving an alluring blend of Arab, French, Italian and English flavours and techniques. The resulting cuisine is packed with fruits of the sea, flavourful seasonal produce and recipes passed down through the generations, set against a backdrop of dramatic rocky outcrops and spectacular blue water.
Exploring his own family heritage, Simon Bajada captures Maltese food for the home cook. The recipes are enticing, with the influence of multiple cuisines apparent. There are Anchovy Fritters, Sea Urchin Spaghetti and Swordfish Carpaccio, all making delicious use of the island’s proximity to the beautiful Mediterranean Sea. For something more comforting, there is a traditional Rabbit Stew, and Stuffed Artichokes packed with garlic and potato. For those with a sweet tooth there is a decadent Maltese Orange Tart – flavoured with blood orange – and if you prefer coffee after dinner there is a recipe for Maltese Coffee Granita and Whipped Ricotta.
It’s a virtual trip to the Mediterranean and will bring some rays of sunshine in these dark wintery days. It will also make a fabulous Christmas present for anyone who’s recently visited, or plans to.
This is as much a storybook as it is a cookbook, with the island’s history and landscape lending context to Simon’s recipes.
Here are a couple of recipes to show you what a lovely cookbook this is… the first recipe reminds me of glorious summer days in Sliema, enjoying this dish at the beach cafe:
“When writing about this dish, in my mind I’m exploring craggy rocks beside the Mediterranean, dodging urchins under foot while Malta’s sun beams down on me. This dish takes you to the seaside. The flavour of the sea penetrates through the pasta – a dish so simple that for me it typifies Maltese food, especially when served with crusty bread and a green salad. Purists might leave the lemon and mint out of the dish, but I love their freshness (if you prefer, you can substitute parsley for mint). The orange flesh inside sea urchins is actually a reproductive organ, sometimes deceivingly called roe. Its flavour is at its sweet and salty best before the urchins are preparing to spawn (different species do this at different times, but for many the best season to eat them is autumn). You can buy sea urchin removed from its spiny shells at good fishmongers.”
2 medium-sized ripe tomatoes
400 g (14 oz) spaghetti
salt and pepper
1 small onion, finely diced.
1 garlic clove, finely chopped.
3 tablespoons olive oil
grated zest of 1⁄4 lemon
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon chopped mint.
150 g (5 1/2 oz) sea urchin flesh
Score the tomatoes on their bases and grate with a box grater. Boil the spaghetti in well-salted water until al dente. Scoop out 200 ml (7 fl oz) of the cooking water before draining the pasta.
While the pasta is cooking, sauté the onion and garlic in 2 tablespoons of the oil in a frying pan over a low–medium heat.
When the onion is soft, add the tomato and some salt and pepper and cook for 2 minutes until the tomato breaks down. Now add the pasta, its water, lemon zest and juice, mint, the remaining oil and the sea urchin. Toss together until the urchin breaks apart and distributes through the pasta. Taste for seasoning and serve.
“Over a selection of Maltese snacks, Gozitan restaurateur Phillip Spiteri described this dish to me. It is such an easy recipe – actually two individual spreads to be served side by side. The eggplant and onion are perfect with roasted meats and fish, or included on a platt Malti. I’m sure once you’ve made this, it will become a staple in your kitchen as it has in mine. The recipe fortifies the Maltese cooking mantra: quality ingredients and simple technique equate to greatness.”
1 large eggplant (aubergine)
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 handfuls basil leaves
Preheat the oven to 220°C (430°F). Take a short, sharp-tipped knife and stab through the skin of the onions, making 6 small incisions around each one. Roast on a baking tray for 20 minutes.
Now make 6 incisions around the eggplant and add to the onions, roasting for another 30 minutes.
Allow the vegetables to cool until you are able to handle them, then make a cut lengthways through the skins. Squeeze out the onion flesh into a wide bowl, and the eggplant flesh into another.
Divide the oil and basil between the bowls. Season with salt and use the back of a fork to mash the soft flesh with the oil and basil. Scoop the eggplant onto a plate and the onion alongside. This is best served at room temperature but can also be warmed again if desired.
Bay Leaf Panna Cotta and Mulberries – Serves 4
Preparation: 5 minutes + 35 minutes resting
Cooking: 20 minutes
400 ml (13 1/2 fl oz) pouring cream (single/light)
100 ml (3 1/2 fl oz) milk
80 g (23/4 oz) white chocolate, broken into pieces.
5 dried bay leaves
1 1/2 teaspoons powdered gelatine.
1 1/2 tablespoons water
3 tablespoons carob syrup
60 ml (2 fl oz/1⁄4 cup) water
100 g (3 1/2 oz) dried mulberries
Gently heat the cream, milk and chocolate in a saucepan. Allow the chocolate to melt and the mixture to steam but not simmer.
Meanwhile, heat a dry frying pan over a medium heat and lightly toast the bay leaves on both sides until fragrant. Add them to the hot milk mixture. Keep the mixture on a very low heat just below simmering for 15 minutes (use a simmer mat if needed). Remove from the heat.
Sprinkle the gelatine into the water in a small bowl and leave to bloom for 5 minutes. Whisk into the saucepan of cream. Let the mixture sit for 30 minutes, whisking at least 3 times. Strain through a fine sieve into a jug, then pour into 4 small bowls or glasses. Cover the panna cottas with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for 4 hours, or until set.
While the panna cottas are setting, combine the carob syrup and water in a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Put the mulberries in a bowl and pour the hot syrup over the top. Stir the mulberries, then cover and leave to soak for at least 1 hour.
To serve, spoon some carob mulberries over each panna cotta.
Bread Pudding. Pudina Tal-ħobż – Serves 8
Preparation: 15 minutes + 1 hour soaking
Cooking: 30 minutes
Don’t throw away your old bread! Pudina tal-ħobż is a beloved recipe passed down through the generations. No two families make it the same, but commonly sugar, butter, eggs and cocoa are added to soaked bread. Grated citrus zest, dried fruits and spices all help to give the hearty pudding some gusto. The result is not the most attractive of desserts, but it’s delicious and easy to make. I like to serve it just warm with whipped cream. It can also be eaten cold cut in slices, a perfect sweet snack on the go.
600 g (1 lb 5 oz) continental-style white loaf, unsliced
500 ml (17 fl oz/2 cups) milk
50 g (13/4 oz) butter, plus extra for greasing
130 g (41/2 oz) sugar
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking powder
grated zest of 1 orange
1 teaspoon mixed spice
1/2 teaspoon natural vanilla extract
50 g (13/4 oz) dates, pitted and chopped, or sultanas.
splash of brandy or sherry (optional)
Cut the crust from the loaf of bread, then slice around 5 cm (2 in) thick. Cut or tear into 5 cm.
(2 in) pieces. Place in a bowl and cover with the milk. Press down on the bread then leave to soak for 1 hour.
Cream the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl until pale. Whisk in the eggs, cocoa and baking powder, then stir in the remaining ingredients. Add the soaked bread (leaving any milk in the bowl behind) and stir until evenly combined. There shouldn’t be any dry patches of bread – if there is, add some of the milk.
Preheat the oven to 180°C (360°F) and butter a large cake tin or baking dish of any shape. Tip the bread mixture into the dish and press down on the mixture firmly so there are no loose pockets. Bake for about 30 minutes, until just cooked through (test by inserting a skewer in the centre of the pudding – it should come out clean).