Famous for fascinating history, Malta is embracing the trend for locally grown organic food and fine wine
The gastronomic scene in Malta has certainly moved on apace from the British forces legacy of beer and chips. The Ministry of Tourism and Culture sponsors awards for restaurants that specialise in serving Maltese dishes. Details of these, and many other recommended restaurants, are listed in The Definite(ly) Good Guide, published annually on the island.
Julian Sammut, the chef-owner of the acclaimed Rubino Restaurant in Valletta (53 Old Bakery Street), is an engaging ambassador for Maltese food. Over lunch he told us how he has researched traditional recipes that have largely survived thanks to home cooking. He highlighted the influences of the many nationalities, including the Order of St John Knights,Italians, Arabs and, of course, Brits who have occupied Malta over the centuries.
For starters we sampled the tasty Maltese dip bigilla, made from mashed beans, garlic, lemon juice and olive oil, with superb ftira bread made in the traditional bakery in Zebbug village (well worth seeking out). Then kapunata (aubergine, peppers, tomatoes, olives and capers) made a true Mediterranean accompaniment to the fresh grilled fish. Maltese pork fillet cooked with local honey and rabbit with herbs and spices were as tender as free-range chicken. And it was amusing to hear that the delightful cassata (Sicilian-type ice cream) had a surprise British ingredient - condensed milk.
It was certainly surprising to hear that, although olive trees have thrived in Malta since the Romans planted them, the island has always imported olive oil. Apparently, olives were ignored in favour of the more lucrative cotton crop. No longer. Thanks to the pioneering drive of local hero Sam Cremona, genuine cold-pressed Maltese olive oil, made from high-quality, hand-picked olives produced at his Wardija Estate, has been awarded European certification. Look out for the distinctive green packaging.
And how about this for inspired re-cycling: the Meridiana Wine Estate, planted on the former Ta’Qali military airbase, uses an irrigation system laid out by the Royal Air Force during WW2. Meridiana’s mission is to produce ‘world-class wines of Maltese character’ made, without the addition of sugar, from classic wine-grapes grown exclusively in Maltese soil. We tasted an excellent Isis (Chardonnay) and Melqart (Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot). The names reflect the Phoenicians, who came to Malta in 800 BC and introduced the art of wine-making to Western civilization. (Tours and tastings at Meridiana are by appointment.)
For an overview of Malta’s 7,000 years of history, The Malta Experience audio-visual, in Valletta, gives a breathtaking sense of just how much there is to see and do. Valletta highlights include the magnificent 16th-century Co-Cathedral, where the many treasures include Caravaggio’s 'The Beheading of St John'.
You can also see the George Cross, awarded to Malta for bravery in WW2, at the National War Museum. And a stroll around the clifftops of Grand Harbour reveals why this dramatic location has featured in epic films such as Gladiator, Troy and Alexander.
The routes of the colourful vintage Leyland and Bedford buses cover the island. The old walled city of Mdina is a must. Don’t miss the Palazzo Falson Historic House Museum - it's an absolute gem. It has a rooftop café, with extensive views over the island, where you can sample local fontanella cakes and snacks with Maltese ingredients such as peppered cheeselets.
For those seeking luxurious atmospheric accommodation, Mdina is home to Xara Palace Hotel a member of the Relais & Chateaux Group of hotels (www.relaischateaux.com) and has an award-winning restaurant. For the ultimate Malta break, arrangements can be made to combine two nights here with three at the recently restored iconic Hotel Phoenicia in Valletta.
The Fortina Spa Resort in Sliema offers a truly amazing range of health and beauty treatments, as well as several swimming pools and restaurants, and unique therapeutic spa bedrooms too. There's even the chance to take a computerised food intolerance test.
Malta has a long tradition of healthcare and healing, from the great medieval hospital established by the Order of St John Knights to the care of wounded troops during both world wars, when the island was known as 'Nurse of the Mediterranean'. These days, Malta is popular for 'health tourism’, with top-quality hospitals and clinics, low costs and a great climate for recuperation.