Valletta’s long-standing little corner spice shop will be closing down after 135 years due to the “takeover” of catering establishments that left no space for tradition, snuffing out an era and another icon of the capital city.
Selling a wide range of herbs and spices since 1888, multi-generational family-run George Zammit Tal-Ħwawar, as it is known, on St John’s Street corner with St Paul’s, was “suffocated” out of the city, according to its third-generation owner.
Johann Farrugia, still busy behind the counter after 47 long years – buried in bags of strong flavours and aromas he has grown immune to, said he would be out by the end of January as the store had reached a “point of no return” more than a century after it was founded by his father’s uncle.
“Restaurants, cafés and wine bars have taken over Valletta and you feel there is no space for you,” he said.
People were visiting the city in the evening for entertainment purposes mainly and there was no longer the same variety of shops, Farrugia contended.
These had changed the feel, narrowed and obstructed streets, preventing other shops from being appreciated.
“Importance has been given to coffee shops and I can understand the need to create variety. But tradition and culture have been forgotten at the expense of business, business, business,” Farrugia said.
He blamed the authorities for not sustaining small stores, not financially, as they had been in the pandemic. But nothing has been done to keep the heritage going, Farrugia said, unlike in other capital cities.
There was “no vision” to preserve Valletta’s identity and “money took over” instead, he said.
The 62-year-old was looking forward to being a pensioner but had no intention of sitting idle.
His son, an archaeologist and academic, with a passion for history, would not be taking over and Farrugia also had come to terms with the fact that there was no one to pass the spice shop on to.
So, the jampacked 10-square-metre store has been sold and Farrugia plans to open a little coffee shop elsewhere in Valletta, where he would continue selling similar herbs and spices and even set up a ‘mini museum’ to showcase antique objects.
The new attraction would be enhanced by manuscripts, old receipt books, invoices and weighing machines from The Spice Shop, considered one of the city’s hidden gems.
Doing it the ‘old way’
Stored in hundreds of containers, bought by weight and wrapped in grease-proof paper – the old way – the vast range of herbs, spices, seasonings, essences, legumes, grains, nuts, beans and dried fruits recently also made way for other daily needs.
Moving on from selling lamp oil, The Spice Shop also stocked coffee beans, including a special Maltese mix, infused with cloves and aniseed, as well as rice starch for those who still wanted to stiffen their doilies and crochet creations “like the olden days”.
Nothing was pre-packed but the turnover allowed for freshness, said Farrugia, who, as a youth, had attempted to go down this route at one stage in the shop’s long history, thinking it was more hygienic and the way forward. But nobody went for the stash of pre-packed products, prepared to speed up sales, and customers insisted on ta’ l-użin (by weight), he recalled, having to unpack everything again.
George Zammit’s best-sellers over the years included pepper, which was still being bought by weight, and it also had its own traditional recipes like It-taħlita tal-Ġimgħa l-Kbira (the Good Friday mix), also known as It-taħlita tal-borma tas-Sepulkru, made of 20 types of spices, added to wine and citrus and left to simmer.
Its most popular products with foreigners were the spices used with rabbit, which they took home as “souvenirs”, Farrugia said.
Over the years, the well-stocked shop has been known by different names, including tat-triq tal-ganċ (the hook street, referring to a hook at the top), tal-kantuniera (the corner shop) and tal-bżar (the pepper shop).
Farrugia still has a large old pepper grinder that was used by his great-grand uncle and that he will take to his new premises.
Using manual scales until today, Farrugia said that no one wanted the shop to be modernised.
The only novelty it introduced recently was a delivery service, where customers could place their orders for the ingredients of Easter figolli and borma tas-Sepulkru.
The Facebook page, Residenti Beltin, has also highlighted the closure of Tal- Ħwawar, saying the capital would be “losing another icon”.
The household shop, N. Caruana & Sons’, in Merchants Street, also closed down recently, prompting sadness and nostalgia as customers recalled decades of service and the owners of the family-run store sought to adapt when the rented building was returned to its landlord 80 years later.
In its post, Residenti Beltin bemoaned the lack of support for small stores that were synonymous with Valletta, pointing to “egoism and greed” instead.
Reactions to the post included that “Valletta has lost its soul” while a tourist commented about the “great experience” of visiting it during a walk in the city and being welcomed by the owner, with his explanations of the products on offer.
“When you see so much happening around you, you realise that life is too short and you cannot remain attached to things,” Farrugia said.
“It is hard to let go but you have to move on and live in the moment.
“I am just closing an era that gave me much satisfaction,” he continued, adding the positive feedback from his “faithful customers”, urging him not to close and to open elsewhere, meant he was ending with a good reputation.
Many of Tal-Ħwawar’s clientele had come with their mothers and then they came with their daughters, moving through the generations.
“I could relate to them, unlike what happens in supermarkets that are just grab-and-go.
“They would even share their problems,” Farrugia said, about the nostalgia that has been sparked as he calls it a wrap…