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Malta Cuisine

Maltese cuisine is the offspring of a long relationship between the indegenous people of the islands and the many foreign dominations over the centuries.

Maltese food is rustic and based on seasonal produce and the fisherman's catch. Although many vegetables and fruit are grown locally all year round, the average Maltese housewife takes advantage of seasonal gluts to stock up and feed her family economical ly. Perhaps unconsciously following previous generations of her won womenfolk, who combined thrift and creativity to satisfy the appetites of their large families.

Pastry of all kinds is used to encase vegetables, cheese, fish, meat, rice and pasta, producing tasty and filling dishes. These include delicate combinations of young cauliflower florets, sheep or goat cheeses and egg contained in a crisp pastry, similar in taste to quiche, or the stronger taste of Lampuki pie, filleted dorado mixed with spinach, cauliflower, chestnuts and sultanas in shortcrust pastry. It has an unusual and delicious taste. Spinach and anchovy pies have a strong taste, but are very popular, as is Timpana, an everyday concoction of pasta in a meat sauce topped with a layer of pastry.

The most universally eaten Maltese pastry will hardly escape the notice of the visitor who explores the streets taking in the sounds, sights and scents of Malta. It is "pastizzi' , probably Turkish in origin, a small (four mouthfulls) boat shaped, delicacy of ricotta cheese and egg wrapped with thin crisp pastry, something between filo and puff. One may prefer and also try "pastizzi' filled with peas, or a larger version with meat or anchovies. These are sold on street corners and in village bars everywhe re, and eaten hot. Maltese normally take them as a snack with tea and coffee.

Stewed and stuffed dishes are also an important feature of Maltese cuisine. Look for stuffed octopus, squid and cuttlefish served in a spicy tomato sauce. Stewed rabbit cooked in wine and herbs, "bragoli", parcels of mince, chopped eggs, breadcrumbs and parsley wrapped in thin sheets of beef, simmered very gently in a gravy. Stuffed poultry, roasted on a bed of sliced potatoes, onions, garlic and herbs, served crisp and brown from the oven. Seasonal vegetables, such as aubergines, tomatoes, peppers, baby marrows and onions are very tasty stuffed with minced meats, olives and other vegetables such as onions and garlic with fresh herbs. These make a good antipasto too, served cold before the main dish.

The Maltese kitchen has much in common with its Sicilian neighbours. The two islands are only 60 miles apart and their climatic conditions, soil and fish are very similar. Pasta is a staple food of the Maltese family and though available, pre-packed and fr esh in every village, many women still prefer the labourious job of preparing their own favourite "ravjul" (ravioli). Semi-circular pockets made from a semolina based pasta dough, filled with ricotta cheese and fresh parsley, served with a homemade tomato sauce flavoured with celery and fresh basil and sprinkled with coarsely grated parmesan cheese. "Ravjul" was originally one answer to the Church decree to abstain from meat on Fridays.

Due to the lack of fire-wood ovens in centuries past, a slow cooking method was used to prepare most Maltese dishes. Food was placed in earthenware pots over a little stone hearth called "kenur" which needed constant tending and fanning. Subsequently, slo w simmering became something of the hallmark of many Maltese dishes and despite the inroduction of gas and electric cookers, slow cooking is still the housewife's favourite.

Lunchtime cooking aromas can be detected very early in the morning in village streets. Since ovens were so rare in the olden days, the Sunday dish was taken, covered with a clean tea-towel, to the communal village oven. Here, the family's metal identity tag was attached. The baker then took responsibility for cooking the most important meal of the week for many of the villagers. When it was carried home piping hot to the expectant family. This tradition is still very much alive in villages and Maltese hou sewives mainatin that many dishes taste different and much better when cookde in the baker's oven. One of the most common popular dishes cooked this way is "ross fil-forn", oven-baked rice, with minced meat and tomato sauce.

Seasonal salads and vegetables are an important feature of the Maltese kitchen. The best loved and most healthy dish is probably "minestra" (minestrone", a thick vegetable soup combining numerous fresh and dried vegetables, served with fresh or grated "gb ejniet" - sheep or goats cheese. "Qarabali" (baby marrows) similar though milder in taste to courgettes is the base of another delicious thick and creamy soup.

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