This article first appeared on The Circle on 23 September 2018.
Photos by Rachel Zammit Cutajar.
Ask any local what the best bread in the world is and they will invariably answer the hobza Maltija. Whether eaten as a meal or an accompaniment, no meal at a Maltese table is complete without a loaf of fresh bread.
The Maltese loaf, or hobza Maltija, has been the very centre of Maltese cuisine since early times. A staple, which made up of 75% of the local diet during the times of the Knights Of St John, bread a factor in the country’s interaction with others through trade and wartime strategy. An increase in the price of wheat as a result of liberalisation of imports caused a revolt that eventually led to a new constitution that allowed Maltese to elect their own prime minister, John Howard in 1921. The Maltese loaf still has a prominent place in modern Maltese cuisine, whether as a meal unto itself as in hobz biz-zejt, or as an accompaniment to almost any meal with a little bit of sauce.
The tradition of baking Maltese bread has changed somewhat over the years. In the past, before households had their own ovens, the village bakery played a more central role in village life. The baker was mainly in charge of running the wood-fired ovens, while it was the villagers themselves who brought in the ingredients to mix the bread. While mixing and kneading, they would catch up on village goings-on, making the bakery the heart and soul of every village. On Sundays, they would take their roasts or pies to bake in the baker’s oven.
To keep up with today’s fast-paced lifestyle, the baker himself now both mixes and bakes the bread and sells both from his own bakery and to supermarkets which allows for more convenient access to the Maltese loaf. What gives Maltese bread its distinct flavour is the use of sourdough, a batch of yesterday’s dough mixed in with the new batch. Though this has become a trend in modern bread-making, for the Maltese loaf, it is a method steeped in tradition.
The creation of the electric oven has made bread-making more convenient, however it has lost some of its traditional charm and flavour. Though some bakeries still use traditional wood-fired ovens, these are few and far between. Qormi, still a village renowned for its superior bread, is one place where traditional bakers still follow the methods (and technologies) used by their grandparents.
When you get hold of a loaf of Maltese bread, still warm out of the oven, it is very difficult to resist digging into the crispy crust and the soft, warm dough on the inside. But if you can hold off a little while, traditional hobz biz-zejt is the best way to enjoy fresh bread, though it’s perfectly good the following day if you pop it in the toaster, served with barbuljata – scrambled eggs. Leftovers can be transformed into a wonderful Maltese dessert – bread pudding. These are some of my recipes.
Every Maltese person has their own version of hobz biz-zejt. Do you serve it with fresh tomatoes, kunserva or both? Do you use tinned tuna or anchovy fillets or no fish at all? The toppings may vary but what remains consistent is the importance of fresh Maltese bread. My favourite way is to simply rub slices of Maltese bread with half a ripe tomato, spread with kunserva, drizzle with some good-quality local olive oil, vinegar and season with Maltese rock salt and freshly ground pepper. You can eat as it is, or top with some chopped local olives and capers, and maybe top with tinned tuna or fillets of anchovies. It can also be served with Maltese fresh cheeses (gbejniet friski) or when in season, with twice peeled broad beans (ful). Fresh herbs are also a great addition. Fresh mint adds an extra boost of flavour to this simple meal.
Sometimes I prepare a tahlita that is a mix, which I put in a large jar and into the fridge ready for any hungry souls that find their way into my kitchen, or even better to take on the beach or boat with the sliced fresh bread. The mix is then handy to top the bread slices when required!
• 1 onion, chopped
• 6 ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped
• 2 tbsp kunserva (tomato puree)
• 6 olives, pitted and chopped
• 2 tbsp good quality Maltese capers (choose the small ones)
• Good amount olive oil
• 2 tbsp vinegar (balsamic or other)
• Freshly ground pepper and rock salt
• 1 small tin tuna fish in oil or a few anchovy fillets (optional)
1. Chop all ingredients well and put into a large clean jar.
2. Add the oil and vinegar, salt and pepper to taste.
3. Mix well with a long spoon, close jar and keep in fridge till needed.
MALTESE SCRAMBLED EGGS – BARBULJATA
Yesterday’s bread is still perfect when it’s toasted. You can serve it with the tahlita as above, or serve with scrambled eggs for an excellent Maltese supper.
• 3 large ripe tomatoes
• 1 onion, finely chopped
• 1 tbsp olive oil
• 25-50g butter
• 8 eggs
• Salt and pepper
• 1 tbsp parsley chopped (optional)
1. Peel, de-seed and chop the tomatoes.
2. Cook the onion in the oil and a little butter until soft and then add the tomatoes.
3. Cook for 5 mins.
4. Beat the eggs lightly with the salt and pepper and pour them onto the tomatoes and onions mix, adding the remaining butter and parsley.
5. Stir continuously over low heat until the eggs are barely set.
6. Remove from the heat and continue to stir.
7. Serve on fresh Maltese bread or toast.
MALTESE BREAD PUDDING
Left over bread can be used to make one of the favourite Maltese puddings!
This recipe was handed down to me by my mother-in-law Elena Mattei.
• A large bowlful of bread, biscuits, buns or Maltese rusks, soaked in water and then squeezed till fairly dry
• 1 tin (400g) sweetened condensed milk
• 1 egg
• a pinch of nutmeg
• 2 tbsp jam
• 2 tbsp treacle
• 1 tsp vanilla essence
• 2 tbsp cocoa
• 2 tbsp raisins
• 1 tbsp candid peel, chopped
1. Preheat the oven to 180°C.
2. Mix all the ingredients into the bread and mix until incorporated.
3. Grease an oven-proof dish with butter and add the bread pudding mixture.
4. Smooth so that it is evenly distributed.
5. Bake until set and firm, approx. 45 mins.
6. Serve warm or cold cut into squares or triangles.
Be Gentle When You Touch Bread
This poem seems to be attributed to David Adam, an English minister and canon of York Minster. It clearly depicts how the Maltese feel about bread.
Be gentle when you touch bread
Let it not lie uncared for, unwanted.
So often bread is taken for granted.
There is much beauty in bread;
Beauty of sun and soil, beauty of patient toil.
Winds and rain have caressed it, Christ often blessed it.
Be gentle when you touch bread.
Like Pippa Mattei’s recipes? Get more in her cookbooks 25 Years in a Maltese Kitchen, which has also been translated into Maltese, and the Gourmand award-winning book Pippa’s Festa.