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 is a sourdough bread with a thick crust and a wonderfully soft and delicate crumb inside. It is not a simple bread. Not only is the starter a lump of dough taken from the previous days’ batch (hence the sour flavor), it has to leaven for six hours, and I can’t even begin to imagine what the conditions of the oven must be to create the hard outer shell while still preserving the soft crumb. This craft passed from baker to baker and most of the bakers have spent their entire life refining and perfecting their technique.
You can respect the baker for his craft, but what drew me to bakeries in Malta was the sense of community and connection that was formed around these bakers and bakeries. Here industrialization has not triumphed over tradition. In many towns and villages, the local baker still delivers bread to their neighbors. I saw my own version of this in Sliema, the harbor town. There, big white vans parked in the middle of the street blocking all the traffic and a man would run into the corner store with many loaves of bread in his hands and many more honking cars behind him.
That same day, I got desperately lost and found a baker operating out of a house. I walked directly into an open room with a huge oven and many busy bakers. When I asked for a bread the baker himself gave me his best loaf (or so he said.) So, as you take down another highly processed loaf of bread full of preservatives from the never-ending super-market bread aisle, remember that somewhere in the world there are still bakers operating out of houses. And don’t worry, the bread will be hard in a day.
This relationship has a long standing tradition. Because such large ovens were expensive and took up a large amount of space, in times past villagers would use the baker’s ovens to make their own bread. They made the dough beforehand or at the bakery and then would bake it there. Other meals (meat dishes, vegetable dishes, potatoes, etc.) could also be placed in the oven to slowly cook. According to some people I met, this tradition continues today.
Funny how so many traditions have formed around a grain that has to be imported from Sicily and was only brought to them by the Knights of St. John in the 16th century.
But like many things imported, the Maltese have taken this tradition and made it their own. The epitome of this for me is Ħobż biż–żejt. A type of tuna fish sandwich with olive oil, tomato paste, and so much other Mediterranean goodness. It is the king of tuna salads. Plus, since almost every article that I read about this meal mentioned the beach, every time I bite into it I imagine sitting on a rocky Maltese beach.
Of course, many Maltese would argue that this dish can best be enjoyed in Malta (kunserva a paste made from tomatoes from Gozo, the neighboring island, GOOD olive oil, and Maltese olives all make this dish best in Malta.) All the same, that doesn’t stop me from biting into this sandwich at least once a week. Somehow it always allows me to escape the glow of my computer for a few minutes and place myself on golden rocky beaches and bright blue oceans.
If you have managed to read through this entire post, I am sure you are you quite hungry. Here is my own recipe for Ħobż biż–żejt other versions here and here. Since this is a sandwich spread you can add or take away pretty much whatever you want from it (some people use anchovies, some don’t add butter beans, some add fresh tomatoes), but this how I like it best. (Makes enough spread for around 3 sandwiches)
1/2 can butter beans
1 can tuna
3 tbsp capers
3 tbsp green picholine olives (pitted and chopped)
1/3 red onion
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 tbsp olive oil
salt to taste
2 garlic clove pieces
1. Mix all of the ingredients, except the garlic, together in a mixing bowl.
2. Toast the bread until crispy and grate the garlic cloves over the toasted bread
3. Add another teaspoon of tomato paste to the bread
4. Add another tsp olive oil to the toasted bread
5. Bite in and dream of the ocean