Our own gastronomic time machine

How Malta is preserving tradition through culinary innovation.

A group of  American executives who met in Malta recently were treated to a gastronomic time-travelling experience: a meticulously chosen wine pairing of a choice of no less than 11 from the wider selection that graced the table of Grandmaster Ferdinand von Hompesch zu Bolheim’s last Christmas banquet, in 1797, a few months before Malta fell to France.

The German Grandmaster wasn’t shy about offering his guests an extensive variety of wines. An astonishing 21 different wines were served, each meticulously paired with a specific course. Sure, wine glasses in the 18th century were generally smaller than today’s, but considering the guests sipped alcohol throughout the whole meal, they must have had a roaring good time.

The Palace’s wine list for the day boasted a remarkable selection, featuring French classics like Hermitage, Port, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Chablis and Pinot Noir, alongside exotic finds from afar, such as Vin de Constance from South Africa and Muscat of Alexandria.

German artist Reinhard Sebastian Zimmermann (1815 – 1893)’s ‘Ein guter Tropfen’ (A Good Drop). Since 1700, wine glasses have become 7 times bigger. Photo: public domain.

The thematic dinner experienced by the US contingent was coordinated of by Taste History, a concept introduced by Heritage Malta – the national agency responsible for museums, conservation practices, and cultural heritage – that offers a unique way to explore Maltese history through food; a multi-sensory experience that combines delicious food with historical knowledge. Since its debut in 2017, Taste History has become a coveted experience; so popular, in fact, that demand for these immersive culinary journeys has exceeded Heritage Malta’s current resource limitations.

Right now, Heritage Malta is strategically managing the number of Taste History events to ensure a sustainable and high-quality experience for all participants. Next month, for instance, Taste History embarks on a culinary adventure for another distinguished group: CEOs of freeports from around the world convening in Malta. Their journey begins at the Inquisitor’s Palace in Vittoriosa, where a custom popular among 18th-century harbour elites will be recreated: a delightful pairing of oysters and champagne. This historical hors d’oeuvre reflects early British presence in Malta, predating official colonisation. The British Navy’s fondness for bubbly fueled a thriving import trade, with Maltese merchants catering to their refined palates. Following this elegant opening, guests will take a short stroll to the nearby Maritime Museum. Here, a recently rediscovered dish from the Knights’ period awaits: a delectable serving of small cuttlefish bathed in a rich bone marrow sauce.

Photo: Heritage Malta

Heritage Malta CEO Noel Zammit assures The Journal that such exciting experiences aren’t limited to the corporate world. Revenue generated from these high-profile events not only fuels vital research into Malta’s culinary heritage but ensures the agency can continue offering similar experiences for the general public at accessible prices. In fact, after having organised seasonal dinners, Taste History delved into unique themed events like the recent Valentine’s Day celebration, aptly titled ‘Aphrodisiacs’, in Vittoriosa. With a commitment to wider public participation, Malta’s fascinating culinary history will be even more accessible as Heritage Malta invests more resources and expands its Taste History team. Taking its commitment to authenticity a step further, the agency plans to integrate homegrown produce from its own fields, such as wines and olive oil, into these experiences.

Photo: Heritage Malta

Noel Zammit recalled that when, seven years ago, Liam Gauci, curator at the Maritime Museum, presented the Taste History concept to him, he was immediately enthusiastic about it. Heritage Malta quickly saw the value in the idea and adopted it. The concept has been incredibly well-received, not only in Malta but also by international audiences at major tourism fairs.

“Our goal in these events is to recreate dishes as closely as possible to how our ancestors prepared and enjoyed them,” Zammit explained. “Through our research, we’re constantly uncovering fascinating details. For example, we learnt that barley, a staple grain back then, was actually hulled, unlike the pearl barley commonly used today. Another surprising discovery is that, during the Knights’ era, oysters were harvested and pickled in the Cospicua dock while galley rowers were given chocolate for energy bursts.”

Noel Zammit, CEO at Heritage Malta

Our collective culinary memory

Liam Gauci describes Taste History as the very first step in a bid to shape our collective national culinary heritage. “We’re just getting a hint of the possibilities with this concept, like the first enticing aroma of a cappuccino before the delicious milk foam arrives,” he said.

Liam Gauci, Chairman at Taste History

For instance, based on documents that have been preserved, the special cocktail that was served at a repast hosted in Malta by Lord Louis Mountbatten in 1952 to celebrate his arrival on the island has been recreated. Remarkably, archaeology could even allow us to reconstruct the meals of our prehistoric past. Fast forward to our more recent history and a significant historical artifact has recently come to light: the silver cutlery set made for the official Independence banquet in 1964, featuring Malta’s coat of arms for the first time ever. Meanwhile, research is underway in a bid to determine the menu served at the 1974 Republic Day banquet, a prestigious event hosted by the Maltese government, although it is proving difficult so far. Strangely, it’s sometimes easier to find details about Malta’s ancient cuisine than dishes served in the recent past, due to a lack of available documents.

The possibilities for uncovering our culinary past are endless. Following the CEO’s point about new discoveries, Gauci revealed another of Taste Malta’s exciting finds: a 17th-century Maltese coffee recipe. Here’s how it goes: first, the beans were roasted until they transformed from green to black. Then, they were meticulously ground using a mortar and pestle. Finally, the grounds were boiled in a kettle placed over embers, not a direct flame. Interestingly, the recipe instructed to keep the kettle on the embers for as long as it takes to recite the creed – a clever timekeeping method for people without watches back then.

In their quest for historical accuracy, Liam Gauci explains that Taste Malta is trying to source coffee beans identical to those used by our ancestors. Ideally, they would come from Ethiopia and Yemen, just like in the past. However, unforeseen circumstances can force adjustments. For example, the ongoing armed conflict in Yemen has skyrocketed Yemeni coffee prices, making it nearly ten times more expensive than its Brazilian counterpart. Since Brazilian beans can deliver a similar taste profile, certain compromises have to be made.

Interestingly, research also revealed a sharp drop in veal prices around 1530, coinciding with the arrival of the Order of St John in Malta. This can be attributed to a sudden surge in demand: with hundreds of knights now living on the island, the pool of potential veal consumers grew significantly overnight.

Speaking of meat, Court documents from a lawsuit between a Maltese butcher and a ship captain have preserved the ingredients for a long-forgotten Maltese sausage. The butcher, seeking payment for his wares, listed them in his testimony. This historical sausage, far from the classic Maltese sausage we know today, had a firm and slightly tough texture.

Photo: Heritage Malta

What is traditional and authentic?

Taking cue from this variation between this historic Maltese sausage and today’s, we ask why, for instance, Italy’s Parmigiano Reggiano has a reputation for consistent flavour, albeit with some subtle variations, while our ġbejna – the small, round cheese traditionally made from sheep milk that’s a staple in Maltese cuisine – comes in a myriad forms and flavours, depending on the producer. Recent decades have seen a surge in creative interpretations of the traditional ġbejna, with new flavour profiles emerging from the use of cow and goat milk, alongside exciting new topping options. Is there one variety that can be considered the ‘authentic’ version?

Replying to this question, Liam Gauci sheds light on the complexity of Maltese cuisine, stating that in this regard “we can speak of Maltese histories, not a singular Maltese history”. He explains that traditional dishes haven’t always uniform across the islands. For instance, if you travelled back in time, the ftira (the flattened sourdough bread that has become the first Maltese product on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list) you would find in Qormi wouldn’t be exactly the same as the one, say, from Żejtun.

Both Noel Zammit and Liam Gauci agree that, while it might seem like a paradox, fostering innovation is crucial for preserving tradition.  “When we allow traditional foods to be reimagined, we increase their chances to survive and be enjoyed by future generations,” they said. After all, this has been happening all along. The oldest ‘traditional’ Maltese rabbit recipe that we know of, for example, was served in a pastizz (the savoury pastry that’s a staple food in Malta), but eventually it developed into the hearty stew that has in our times earned the national dish tag.

By adapting our culinary heritage to changing tastes and needs, traditional food can remain relevant, enjoyable, and a cherished part of our identity.

Photo: Heritage Malta

Main photo: Heritage Malta

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