Steam fills the air as a pot full of searing caramel is poured over a marble slab. It settles immediately and starts to harden. But while it's still supple, Robert Caruana goes over it with a big rolling pin that has circular blades from right to left and repeats the process from bottom to top, criss-crossing the block of caramel. Moments later he slides a large knife under the caramel and starts lifting it and breaking it up into small squares.
Mr Caruana is one of the last three nougat makers in Malta, and as there is a tradition to refrain from eating sweets during Lent, nougat makers developed carob caramel sweets - an acceptable alternative - to keep the business going.
The products are sold under the brand name of Beehive, after buying the business from Karmenu Baldacchino, a man who had set up the firm almost 50 years ago, and with whom he worked in the same workshop since childhood.
"You have to be in love with this work," he said. "Apart from the hours, which verge on the inhuman, everything is against us. Essentially we work with sugar, which everyone tries to avoid these days."
Mr Caruana not only makes karamelli tal-harrub (carob caramel sweets), but sells them himself during the Good Friday procession in Zebbug, his hometown. "The recipe is basically the same that has been used since time immemorial for hard nougat, except that almonds or hazelnuts are added to it to make nougat," he said.
His speciality is soft, white nougat, which comes in six different flavours. However, nougat is cooked in small quantities before village feasts, as it is best fresh, so at the moment he has something else on his mind: karamelli.
Pot after pot is made and poured over two marble slabs, which he used alternately.
"I have to let one cool a little as by the end of the day the marble becomes so hot that it's difficult to cut the caramel because heat from the marble keeps it warm," he explained.
Production is in full swing and all hands are on deck. He has been making them for the past two weeks and will continue until Holy Week.
His wife Marie lends a hand, as does his retired father Carmelo. Though work is at its peak now, the preparation starts in August, when carobs are picked, diced and boiled to extract their syrup - an essential ingredient in the mixture - which is boiled to 380°C.
"If you boil it at a lower temperature, you'll get a white syrup that does not harden. If you go over that, you get a black mixture that hardens but which is bitter," he said.
"In the past we used to wrap each individual karamella in grease-proof paper, and then pack 10 of them in a paper bag. Today, both because of the labour involved and because of sanitary regulations, we pack them in sealed plastic bags," he said.
This year he has a lot of orders for Figolli (a traditional almond-flavoured biscuit-cum-cake that is consumed on Easter Day) and he is also making kawrezimal, a type of biscuit that is also eaten during Lent.
"You can't turn down anything as when you are self-employed, you have to make ends meet," he said.
Mr Caruana left a technical internet-related job to start working as a confectioner full time.
"Keeping a tradition alive gives me more satisfaction," he said. "After Lent, we will start full swing on nougat. We make it from Monday to Saturday and sell it over the weekend. In summer, in the peak of the feast season, we work from 6 a.m. till 10 p.m. Our work is very seasonal. But I can't make it in winter to sell it in summer. The taste just won't be the same,' he said.
"I remember we used to make big blocks of nougat as it was sold by weight. Because of sanitary laws, everything has to be pre-packed these days. The principle involved in making it remains the same. But we have new ingredients and flavours. You have to move with the times yet retain as much of tradition as you can," he said.
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