With our long and rich history, there's no wonder that Maltese cuisine reflects its rich national heritage, merging Arabic, Eastern, French, Spanish, Catalan and of course British cultures in one plate. Over the centuries Maltese food, and particularly Christmas cuisine, has been influenced by the neighbouring Italy, and mostly, the Sicilian culture, but of course, even the colonial British left their legacy of turkey treats. The Maltese also creatively improvised some of their own recipes using their inherited knowledge. So, gastronomically speaking, our history became as complicated and as interesting as our past.
Whilst tucking into some scrumptious Pastizzi or a warm Aljotta, did you ever ask where the recipes originally came from? Have you ever wondered about the origins of the Soppa Ta' L-Armla, Imqaret, and Qaghaq tal-Ghasel?
It is believed for instance, that minced meat and mince pies were introduced to the island back in medieval times as a result of North African influence.
Like Italian cooking, Maltese cooks also rely on seasonal foods that are available during a particular time of year. In today's world were supply closely meets demands, this does not exactly equate to the inherited concept of ‘Cucina Povera' which was traditionally based on vegetables, cereals and fresh fruit, reserving the fresh fish and poultry for special occasions.
We have inherited the ricotta-filled sweet Canolli from
Sicily, and we gave the sweet Sfogliatelle of Naples our own local twist and ending up with the delicious Pastizzi. Our baked pasta also has close relatives all over the south of Italy. Some of our deserts, however, the ones that make creative use of figs, dates, nuts and honey, are closer to the African continent than to Italy.
The fantastic and yummy Christmas pudding has its origins in 15th century England. Women then, used to make the plum pottage with either beef or mutton and mixed with dry fruits. White meat was introduced in the 16th century as the prime ingredient and the taste changed once again when root vegetables were also removed from the original recipe. This is how we ended up with our 19th century pudding - closest in taste to the one we know today. The Christmas pudding is a traditional Christmas food that originated in Europe. Although England likes to take credit for its inception, theirs originally included meat and were served as a main course. The Christmas pudding as we know it was introduced to England by the German Prince Albert when he married Queen Victoria. There are 13 ingredients in a Christmas pudding, said to represent Christ and his disciples. A lot of people who make their own puddings stick to the old tradition of everyone dropping a coin into the mixture, giving it a stir and making a wish. Another tradition is to drop a gold ring in, this was meant to indicate that who found it would find love and be married within the next year.
A major dish of colonial Britain was the roasted turkey and is now the most universal meat eaten on Christmas day. This bird originated in the USA. It was large, filling and very cheap. It was introduced to England in 1526, and quickly spread throughout Europe. Its popularity grew to an extent that now, if you say you aren't having Turkey for Christmas dinner, people look at you as if you are mad! Though a dying tradition, some Maltese women still take their roast to the neighbourhood ‘forn' and perhaps more so during Christmas time, because in order to feed the extended family, some turkeys are too big to fit inside the domestic home oven. Remember the best roast is that which is bought and prepared two days before a meal.
This ensures that the best taste seeps deep into the flesh giving every bite its exquisite palate.
The humble mince pie has been a Christmas favourite for centuries. King Henry V of England ate mince pies at his coronation in 1415. The first mince pies contained minced up meat. They were made in rectangle dishes which were likened to Jesus' crib, hence the tie in with Christmas.
During the following centuries, various spices and alcohol were introduced to England and they found that by mixing the meat with these ingredients it preserved the meat so the pies could be made in advance and stored. The mince pies that we know and love today contain no meat at all. They are a combination of dried fruits, candied peel, mixed spice etc. Despite having nothing at all in common with their ancestors, this Christmas tradition will last eternally.
"Nothing would be so tiresome as eating, had God not made them both a pleasure and a necessity." Voltaire