Malta, cast out in the middle of the Mediterranean, is at a natural crossroads. Just 50-odd miles from Sicily, approaching the Maghreb, accessible from the south of France and not too far from Greece, traditional Maltese food combines influences from its many Mediterranean neighbours and former rulers. Some might say this has resulted is a rather strange selection of national dishes.
When you land in Malta, know one thing: this is carb country – Dr Robert Atkins would have been most displeased! You’ll likely begin most days with pastizzi – flaky, multi-layered pastries that contain either fresh ricotta or an English-inspired filling of mushy peas, thankfully without the fried fish. They’re often served hot, alongside tea or coffee – and the coffee here is well worth trying, dosed as it is with aniseed, cloves, and other spices. Crystal Palace, a bakery in Rabat that’s almost always open, is often said to make the very best on the island.
In general, a good rule of thumb is to stay near the bakeries – the bread in Malta borders on sublime. A staple of traditional Maltese food is the rustic, wonderfully moreish hobz biz-zejt – warm bread that’s rubbed with a juicy tomato before being topped with capers, anchovies, cheese, and fresh herbs. Given its proximity to Italy, Malta is also mad for pasta. Homemade ravjul (ravioli) stuffed with fresh sheep’s milk cheese, has been a staple supposedly since the Middle Ages, while timpana, a lasagne-like dish of baked pasta topped with short crust pastry, would tempt the most determined of Paleo dieters.
Of course, the Maltese can’t live on starch alone. Given that it is a Mediterranean island, seafood reigns supreme here. The small fishing village of Marsaxlokk, which sells fruits de la mer fresh from the water, is considered ground zero, and restaurant Ir-Rizzu is arguably the best place to taste it. Look out for octopi, lampuki (Malta’s most popular fish – otherwise known as mahi mahi or dorado), and other local catches. Perhaps less predictably, rabbit ranks as the most popular meat in Malta. Fenkata (rabbit stew) is considered a national dish – and is often served with pasta as a ragu. United Bar turns out a classic version.
But all that’s only scratching the surface of Maltese food. On the whole, the country’s cooking leans towards the rustic, with dishes like soppa tal-armla (widow’s soup), minestra (minestrone) and other popular peasant-style recipes. And only a fool would willingly give Maltese dessert a miss: kannoli are the local version of the Italian ricotta-based treat, while a plate of sticky treacle rings might warrant skipping the starters.
Despite this emphasis on rustic cuisine, Malta is also home to a number of fine dining restaurants. Tarragon puts a modern spin on traditional plates, and Ta’Frenc, located in a converted farmhouse, serves homemade ravjul and bread alongside more Michelin worthy culinary masterpieces. The Villa Corinthia at the Corinthia Palace Hotel, meanwhile, sources superbly fresh local ingredients for dishes such as risotto with prawns or rabbit and papardelle with broad beans.
Our only advice for first-time travellers to Malta? Be sure to pack a substantial appetite.