The dining rooms of (soft) power: you’re invited

This year's ‘Tisjir mill-Qalb’ cookbook is not just a collection of recipes; it's a passport to a world of culinary cultures, allowing people to embark on a diplomatic gastronomic adventure from the comfort of their own kitchen.

“For centuries, the dining table has been recognised as a unique forum where negotiations can be fought, differences settled and relationships sealed,” observes a thought-provoking piece published by Diplomat Magazine, focusing on the mechanism nations use to exert their ‘soft power’ through the stomach.

It was amidst the lavish setting of a June 1790 dinner that US Founding Fathers Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson brokered a pivotal agreement, breaking a stalemate over the location of the new American capital, the article points out: “Meeting at Jefferson’s house in New York, and consuming courses of capon stuffed with Virginia ham, boeuf à la mode and Baked Alaska, the three men decided how the Revolutionary War debt should be apportioned across the states and, putting aside ideological and personal differences, agreed to locate the capital on the banks of the Potomac — an agreement fuelled, no doubt, by each course being paired with fine wines.”

Drawing from Stuan Stevenson’s insightful work, The Course of History – Ten Meals That Changed The World, Diplomat Magazine highlights the extraordinary extravagance of the masked ball and feast hosted by the Austrian Emperor and Empress in October 1814 as part of the Congress of Vienna: “Some 10,000 guests — the cream of European society — attended the Hofburg imperial palace, to dine on a lavish meal conceived by the celebrated chef Marie-Antoine Carême. The guest list included two emperors and empresses, four kings, one queen, four heirs to thrones, two grand duchesses and countless princes and princesses. Collectively they represented allies and former foes who were now meeting as victors of Napoleon to agree a new vision for Europe. Over dishes made from Carême’s mighty shopping list—which boasted no less than 300 hams, 200 partridges, 600 ox tongues, 3,000 litres of soup and a veritable fountain of wine—the guests were beginning the process of dividing up the continent and restoring the balance of power to forge lasting peace.”

Cooking from the (ambassadors’) heart

Jumping forward to Malta in 2023, the culinary creations of foreign top diplomats stationed in our country – or, more accurately, of their chefs – is celebrated in the latest edition of the annual cookbook ‘Tisjir mill-Qalb’ (‘Cooking from the Heart’). The book is published by the Office of the President, serves as a fundraising initiative for the Malta Community Chest Fund Foundation.

The choice of diplomatic cuisine as this year’s theme does not come as a surprise. This will be the last edition to be published during the Presidency of George Vella, who had served as Malta’s Foreign Affairs Minister in 1996-1998 and in 2013-2017. The outgoing President is known for his fondness for the ordinary pleasures in life and his preference for simple meals with loved ones over opulent State dinners. Yet, as a well-versed politician who has left his indelible mark on the Malta’s foreign affairs policy, he has a deep appreciation of how food in diplomatic settings can foster friendship, understanding, and cooperation between countries and peoples.

The cookbook, first introduced by former President George Abela and continued by his two successors, features a unique theme annually and has garnered a loyal following among hundreds of readers, with many eager to collect the complete collection.

“We have been seeing a keen interest from the public since the 14th edition of the book was launched a few days ago,” said Dr Paolino Schembri, who has been coordinating this project since 2015. Holding a Doctorate in Food Safety Management Systems, he is a consultant to the catering industy on food safety. The publication’s widespread appeal, encompassing both Maltese residents and international audiences, has led to its availability in both of the country’s official languages, Maltese and English.

So, what does the book offer?

This year’s ‘Tisjir mill-Qalb’ is a culinary tapestry woven from the contributions of 20 heads of foreign diplomatic missions residing in Malta. Each ambassador has shared four culinary creations that are regularly served at their respective embassies, most of them showcasing a taste of their homelands. These dishes present a delightful spectrum of culinary delights, spanning from tantalising hors d’oeuvres to savoury appetisers, hearty main courses, and delectable desserts. That means that this year’s edition features an array of 80 recipes, allowing readers to embark on a global gastronomic adventure without leaving the comfort of their own kitchen.

“We made sure that the ingredients for all the recipes could be found locally, so that anyone could easily prepare them at home,” Dr Schembri explained. “We also simplified the recipes as much as possible, and in some cases we even asked the chefs to slightly adjust the recipes to make them more accessible for home cooks.”

He emphasised that great care was taken to ensure that the recipes and photos in the book were uniformly presented, ensuring a sense of stylistic consistency. The recipes feature straightforward instructions with a maximum of ten steps, accompanied by a list of all ingredients on the side. They also incorporate allergen symbols at the bottom of the page and specify the number of servings each recipe yields.

Even the choice of spiral binding was not a random decision, as this binding facilitates smooth page navigation without damaging the spine or causing the book to collapse during use.

Dr Schembri expressed his gratitude to the dedicated officer from the Office of the Presidency, Juanita Muscat, who has been, year after year, an invaluable asset on the many endeavours related to the cookbook.

Behind the scenes

Dr Paolino Schembri explained how, after the decision on this year’s theme was taken earlier this year in liaison with the President, all heads of diplomatic missions resident in Malta were contacted. They were all excited about being part of this project he said, so much so that many of them later on even accompanied their respective chefs for the recipe photoshoot at the Verdala Palace.

“Each embassy was allocated 30 minutes,” the ‘Tisjir mill-Qalb’ coordinator explained. “The chefs arrived with their dishes, and some needed to add the final touches, like drizzling sauce, briefly baking the food to elevate the glaze, or grilling the meat to create a signature grill mark.”

There were two photographers working in parallel on the recipe photos: Saviour Azzopardi and Pierre Farrugia, who donated their work and time to the MCCFF. It took them only two half-days to complete the daunting task of taking professional pictures of each of the 80 recipes.

During the photoshoot for ‘Tisjir mill-Qalb’.

Weaving food and culture

“The cookbook presents us with an incredible mix of different tastes and aromas,” Dr Schembri says. “The culinary offerings span from the herb-infused delights of the Mediterranean to the spice-laden cuisine of the Middle East, the vibrant and captivating flavours of Asian cuisine, and beyond.”

Dr Schembri readily admits to succumbing to the temptation of sampling some of the delicacies prepared by the embassy chefs and encourages the public to do the same by acquiring a copy of the cookbook and recreating these culinary gems in their own kitchens.

The core team behind ‘Tisjir mill-Qalb’. From left to right: Paolino Schembri, Saviour Azzopardi, Pierre Farrugia, and Juanita Muscat.
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