This one’s from the Maltese Ex-Pat.
“What’s the food like in America?” is a question I’ve gotten a number of times since moving here from Europe. The question reveals the gulf of mutual ignorance on either side of the ocean. Can one talk of “American” food like one can talk of Italian, French and Spanish food?
Enter the European stereotypisation of America; giant portions of burgers, steaks, hot dogs and chicken wings. An unflattering image of simple, fattening food. The polar opposite of the complex, naturally healthy gourmet food on every table in Europe.
But just like the actual Arctic and Antarctic poles, these areas are more alike than they are different. There’s no shortage of fast food in Europe, the same western tendencies away from traditional food and towards ready-meals, frozen food and junk are now well entrenched. In America as well as in Europe, a more recent reaction to this trend in the form of the organic and slow food movement is well underway.
The Maltese peasants lived under many masters. There were the Arabs, the poor ostracized Maltese nobles — deemed by most European nobles to be little better than peasants themselves, then the knights of the order of St. John who fleeing Jerusalem and then Rhodes barely escaped the advances of the Ottoman Empire’s Sulleiman the magnificent until, with great reluctance, they finally arrived in Malta. As the knights and nobles feasted and dined on meat, the peasants eked out a living eating fish and bread, bread and fish, day in and day out.
Malta is hot. Hot and dry. Hot, dry and small. It is not a country that can sustain large herds of cattle which ravish even the most fertile lands. If there was meat to be had, it would go to the nobles.
I didn’t mean for it to happen. I swear. A simple recipe, no translations, no extreme recipe confusion and another late night meal eaten some time between 10:30 PM and 12:00 AM. Only a simple recipe, only a short blog post. BUT then I was stuck on a plane for 2 hours, a bus for another 3 and had nothing to do but to read about bread. And what was originally a simple snack, took on a life of its own. This staple, this grain, emanates an aura of nostalgia, community and days spent on the beach that we somehow have let slip into the past. Not so in Malta, where the baker is still known to you by name and baking is a craft to be learned rather than just a hobby.
Ħobż tal-Malti (Maltese bread) has become a symbol not only of sustenance, but identity and community. No wonder there is both a Maltese Bread and a Hobz biz-zejt page on Facebook.
When your heart and palate have spent the last 8 months dreaming of wild fennel browned by the bright sun poking out of porous rocks and rabbit stewed in wine for hours, how do you call up those memories when these images leave your life. What do you do when these scenes and flavors that had been painted so brightly and clearly recede into the background and become abstract? A relationship ends and suddenly what you knew about the food and its people becomes foggy. What would you do if you already had a plane ticket? Would you go? I couldn’t resist. The tastes of Malta were calling me and with or without the Maltese painter, I would discover them. So too I will now learn to paint the Mediterranean colors myself. I will delve into Malta, and who knows, maybe the act of conjuring these tastes will sharpen that faded picture.