The Mediterranean is rightly synonymous with “good food,” and Malta is certainly no exception to that rule. While the country’s rocky and semi-arid terrain is less lush than other Medi enclaves, the abundant sun and long-held farming habits mean it’s bursting with delectable traditional Maltese food. From floral Maltese olive oil to piquant sun-dried tomatoes and wild capers, sun-sweet figs to local Gbejniet cheese and hobz-biz-zejt sandwiches, there’s plenty of produce to sample, whether you’re grazing at farmers’ markets or gearing up for a culinary shopping spree.
First things first: it’s time to pick up some Maltese olive oil. The brilliant sunlight and sea breezes have long fostered groves of silvery olive trees across Malta – in fact, olive oil production has been practiced since the time of Roman rule. These days, chefs and traditional Maltese food lovers praise the local olive oil as some of the world’s best – delicious as a cooking ingredient or simply served up alongside a crusty loaf.
Where to pick up your olive oil, then? Many farmers informally sell bottles of their freshly pressed, extra-virgin oil, so it’s always worth keeping an eye on roadside signs. Alternatively, visitors can sign on for a tour and tasting at the Tan-Nixxiegha grove, or pick up a few bottles from the shop at the Villa Bologna.
Speaking of: if you find yourself in a restaurant facing down an antipasti platter, you’re also likely to find some wild capers alongside your olives. Technically flower buds that are salt-packed or stored in brine, capers grow wild all across Malta, making them very forage-friendly. They’re also more formally cultivated, and jars of capers can be found on most grocery store shelves.
As with many other Mediterranean countries, Malta’s tomato crops are particularly plentiful. Ripe, juicy, vermilion specimens, fed by the calcium-rich Maltese soil, are a staple of Maltese summers, while sun-dried tomatoes are a popular local treat year-round. Perhaps best of all, though, is kunserva: a concentrated tomato paste that is an essential element of hobz-biz-zejt, or the open-faced Maltese sandwiches that come traditionally slathered with the stuff. Rich, sweet, and gloriously tomatoey, it’s a cornerstone of Maltese cooking. The Gozo-made Three Hills brand is still far and away the most popular, and found in most local food shops.
While we’re on the subject of spreads and condiments, another must-try is bigilla, a paste made from ful ta’girba beans (they’re similar in flavour to broad beans, and are also native to the archipelago). Dosed with garlic and chilli, this is the perfect midday snack, and goes splendidly with bread or raw vegetables. While bigilla is easy to make at home, it’s also available in shops, at markets, and is even hawked by street sellers who specialise in the stuff.
Goats and sheep do well in warm and semi-arid climates, and as a result, their cheese is another staple of traditional Maltese food. Specifically, gbejniet: historically made in Gozo, these round cheeselets come in a few different forms. When fresh, this cheese is as creamy and mild as mozzarella, while the aged varieties are firmer and nuttier. Many producers also coat the cheeses in pepper or other spices, or store them in olive oil. While gbejniet are widely available, Gozo is the best place to sample. Make sure to stop in at Ta’ Rikardu in Victoria for all kinds of local produce – the owner also moonlights as a cheesemaker.
Given Malta’s seaside location, next on the list shouldn’t come as any surprise: sea salt. Salt production is an ancient tradition here, and today it continues, with salt pans across Malta and Gozo producing tonnes of salt every year. The curious can even attend salt harvesting workshops.
And where would traditional Maltese food be without something for the sweet tooth? There’s nothing quite as inviting as a sun-warmed fig, bursting with juiciness. Citrus fruits also thrive in Malta, as do dates. Carob syrup and honey are staples of farmers’ markets, and cumin is another local speciality – the island of Comino derives its name from the spice. From farms to markets and shops to restaurants, you’re liable to find fresh Maltese produce at every step.