Fins & Gills
St Paul’s Bay
Tel: 2713 9297
I’m in this awkward relationship that I know I can never extract myself from. There is an almost equal measure of love and disappointment, quite possibly on both sides, so I’m destined to be trapped for a good, long while.
The other party in this unholy symbiosis is the country I call home. And, as with every troubled relationship, I complain about it behind closed doors but hate to air our differences with outsiders. Whenever anyone who is visiting this country complains about a single element they dislike, I rattle off the 10 points that turn that negative into a petty niggle in comparison.
Now, there isn’t enough room on this newspaper for me to list my troubles and, even if I did so, it would lead nowhere because we all know a toxic relationship isn’t repaired by making a bilateral snag list. This is particularly true when the other party, the one I’m complaining about, seems to have an incredible appetite for punishment that’s complemented with a healthy dose of self-loathing.
Let’s take sports. I talk about sports from a completely rational standpoint because I don’t follow any of it. Why does a country with such an incredible ratio of shoreline to surface area not play waterpolo as a national sport? Why the obsession with football? Why torture yourself on the ground, in the heat, when you can be hurting yourself anyway but mercifully submerged in refreshing water? Self-loathing.
Let’s move to an area I’m more familiar with. Our diet is largely composed of pizza, pasta, bread, grilled meats, baked pastry and kebabs. For a country idyllically located in the centre of the Mediterranean, that’s the medical equivalent of being given a clean bill of health and insisting that you want diabetes to have something to complain about. Self-loathing.
The one time I’m unable to make any excuses for the country is when anyone who hasn’t been born and bred here asks me about food, specifically, why our diet is so unusually skewed. I have no answer other than the one I’ve been repeating and I find myself having to admit to our own reluctance to do what is essentially sensible.
A tidy and generous package that’s priced very attractively and packed with seasonal, local produce
A colleague of mine, who was born on the West African coast and has lived in Portugal all of his adult life, asked my why he couldn’t eat fish that was affordable enough to have every day and why he couldn’t do this at the beach. I had no answer. I said the solution could be to replace just one of the ice-cream trucks at the beach with one that sells those paper cones filled with fried squid and shrimps that other countries with an actual coast have. Add a glass of inexpensive prosecco and you’re eating a geographically correct meal.
He asked why there weren’t any of these and I had no answer. I still don’t but I was lucky enough to bump into an enticing alternative.
The first time I visited Fins & Gills in St Paul’s Bay I was driving home from an afternoon of wine in the sun and was looking for a quick bite that would tide me over until dinner time. In that state, a sign saying ‘fish and chips’ on a corner in St Paul’s Bay was enough for me to think of a stomach full of greasy food.
I was certain the place was a trap for those brilliant tourists who come over for a week to do what they like best – spend time in a pub watching football and eating familiar food – only in a warmer and more agreeable climate.
With this in mind, I parked as awkwardly as the law would close an eye to and popped inside for a quick fix. Bleary-eyed, I asked whether the fritto misto contained any of the fried squid, hoping for a ‘yes’.
The man started talking to me and slowly I felt my mind turn inside out as it attempted to process the words I was hearing. The fritto misto, it turns out, was a relatively poor one today because the weather over the past couple of days was dodgy and the catch wasn’t as varied as usual. There would be three different shoal fish, some cod and a smaller amount of squid than usual because of the size of the day’s catch.
I stared for a while, my wine-addled brain trying to process this. The man didn’t miss a beat. He pointed at his display of fresh fish saying he could grill some lovely tuna, a tail fillet of salmon or the small swordfish that looked as fresh as I’ve ever seen swordfish.
I must have said something to the effect of thinking this was a regular chipper, the kind guy who would have no shame battering a Mars bar and dunking it in the fryer. He nodded, knowingly, and assured me that everything he served was a fresh catch and that his menu changed every day depending on this.
I asked about the fish cakes. They were made with whitebait, cod and some wild fish roes to keep the whole thing nice and creamy. He does the traditionally battered fish and chips and uses the fresh catch to do so. This means you could have lampuki in your fish and chips when it’s in season and even octopus if it was plentiful on the day.
I walked away with the fritto misto and the fish cakes. The mix of fried fish was heavily populated with the little fish I caught as a kid and I call them the way I knew them – ruzett, trill, vopi, gattarell – and some shrimp, little bits of squid and even trimmings from the edges of the cod fillets. They’re floured and seasoned and fried, going into the oil at different times to make sure the shrimp doesn’t cook for as long as the little fish do. The chips are crunchy and I’d been asked whether I wanted them salted, which I did.
It’s satisfying to gently pry a tiny fried fish apart, remove the spine and eat the rest. Each one has its own distinct flavour and I could close my eyes and identify most of them. The shrimp is so tiny that it tastes best when consumed whole, head and all. And there was plenty in the box so I found myself struggling to eat the stragglers.
Consuming so much fried food isn’t something I’d do daily but it felt lovely to consume a fresh catch and spend €8 on it. The only catch is that I drove home with the box and fried fish and chips don’t like to travel.
So I returned and I dragged the man who’d asked about eating fish close to the sea with me.
Fins & Gills is no more than a minute’s walk from the bay so the plan was to buy our food, walk down to the shore and sit by the sea, dangling our feet over the edge of the quay and throwing the fish bones back into the sea whence they’d originated.
This we did and it was close to sunset so the view would have been pretty idyllic had the skies not turned an ominous shade of grey. But we were not deterred. We marched into the tiny fish and chip shop and this time I asked about the catch. There was disappointment on the face of the man who runs the place because the weather had been miserable but, he said, there was a decent selection of tiny fish for the fritto misto and he had some lovely new fish cakes. As we tossed between the fish cakes and the battered squid, a fisherman walked in with fresh mazzola, a local dogfish, and my colleague was instantly sold on a fillet of this beauty in batter as a take on fish and chips unique to the postcode we were standing in.
Call me boring but I’d loved the mix of fried fish the last time around and I ordered the same thing. We paid just under €20 for the fish and a couple of drinks and headed down to enjoy the view.
The prospect of eating a simple and tasty fish dinner in such a tranquil setting trumped the weather’s attempts to make us miserable. As we dug our fingers into boxes full of steaming fish, we had that sort of zig-zag conversation that goes from topic, to the food we’re eating, back on topic, and back to the food. It would have made for terrible TV but we thoroughly relished every moment.
Malta had done it again. Just when I was angry about something or other, it delivered the goods in a tidy and generous package that’s priced very attractively and packed with seasonal, local produce. If it was good this time around, picture the experience a few weeks from now when our fishing boats return laden with a late Spring catch.
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