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.
And so the villagers fished and dreamt of the day when they too could partake in the feast. On Imnajra when they too could share a Fenkata (rabbit feast.) Then the ban on hunting rabbits was finally lifted and the fenek (rabbit) became everyman’s feast.
“But what is a Fenkata?” you say?
Put simply? One of those foreign concepts that can never be translated in one word; to explain a Fenkata, you need an entire paragraph. The prefix -ata cannot be explained easily, perhaps it is best explained as a time frame which encompasses and encloses all activities that take place during a certain event/time. A fenkata does not just refer to the food eaten, but the conversations had, or the wine drunk. A fenkata represents every instant that is enjoyed and shared while eating this meal.
As you may have expected, a fenkata does not just involve the rabbit itself, but the nougat sweets that come as desert, the peanuts that are served after the fenek to ensure that even those that did not eat themselves to bursting on rabbit, leave the table completely stuffed. Fenkatas are held at restaurants, at family get-togethers, on your first communion, on a whim when you realize it has been a week or two since the last time you ate rabbit. For many babies it is the first meat they eat.
The demand for rabbit is so great rabbit is imported from neighboring Sicily. Everyone has their favorite spot to buy their rabbit. One buys the rabbit straight from the local rabbit farmer, another from the village butcher.
Malta is a small Catholic country where family ties are still important and the Sunday afternoon family lunch/dinner is still observed. Often rabbit is the meal of choice.
Yesterday, given our huge amount of snow, I was stuck inside and so on a whim, I too made fenkata. I had not yet found someone to share it with, but where this is a fenek a feast always follows. Whether surrounded by heaps and heaps of snow or served in the middle of a heat wave by the Mediterranean sea, this meal is always delicious and every last bit will be enjoyed.
olive oil for frying
1 medium red onion
6 garlic bulbs
6 bay leaves
2 cups of dark red wine
2 tablespoons of tomato paste (kunserva is best, but hard to find 😉 )
1/2 cup of peas
- Cut the rabbit into smaller pieces. This is a rather sickening task that involves a lot of bone breaking. I used this video as a reference. (warning: the video is rather graffic!!)
- Add olive oil to pan and heat until olive oil is very hot.
- Add rabbit bits and braise until golden brown. If the pan is not large enough, add in batches.
- Once the rabbit is braised, add red onions and garlic and sauté until translucent.
- Add bayleaves, red wine, tomato paste and peas. Bring the stew to a boil and after a few minutes reduce to a simmer. Cover the pan with a lid and cook for an hour and a half over medium-low heat or until liquid is reduced by half.
Notes for the linguists:
Fenkata is derived from the Maltese word “Fenek” (Rabbit). When you say “shall we do a Fenkata” you are suggesting that you either prepare a rabbit stewed in wine “Fenek mixwi” or a rabbit fried in Garlic “Fenek moqli.”
“-Ata” is one of those great Latin suffixes that completely changes the meaning of a word. This suffix is found in Spanish (-ada), Italian (-ata) and French(-ée).
Have you ever wondered why we hold “soirées” rather than “soirs” in English? What distinguishes “soirée” from “soir” is that a “soirée” encompasses all the events that may occur during a specific time. It is a time that has a very distinct beginning and end. Thus you wish someone a “bonne soirée” when they are leaving the office, but a “bon soir” when you are meeting thme later that night because “soir” implies a specific moment in time only temporal while “soirée” implies duration (in other words when you wish them a good night you are wishing them a pleasant evening from beginning to end.
In Italian the equivalents are “giornata” and ” serata.” Also in this context “-ata” implies temporality and focuses on the events that unfold during a certain amount of time or the temporal duration of an event. This -ata encompasses and encloses all activities that take place during a certain event/time. Thus a fenkata does not just refer to the food eaten, but the conversations had, the wine that is drunk and every instant that is enjoyed and shared while eating this meal.