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A Brief History of Food in Malta

Situated in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, the island of Malta has a long history of settlers and invaders. When humans first set foot on the islands, Malta was still mainly a woodland and the new settlers diet was predominantly plant based, though they also ate game which they hunted.

Over the centuries, crop cultivation and animal husbandry were given a boost. In fact, with the arrival of the Phoenicians in Malta, and their love for olives, they initiated a large scale olive oil industry in Malta. The Romans followed up on this initiative and during their sojourn in Malta olive cultivation flourished. Remains of this olive oil industry can be found in various places around Malta. Village names like ejtun, a - ebbu and Bir ebbu a reflect the connection of these localities with this crop and its oil. Remains of an olive pressing factory from the Roman period were found at San Pawl Milqi near Burmarrad. With the decline of the Roman Empire, olive oil production dwindled to a mere subsistence level. Under Arab rule, Malta experienced new agriculture-linked innovations. The Maltese were introduced to new crops, like car ob, figs and citrus. The Arabs also introduced the technique of dry-stone wall construction, which led to a stepped terrace agricultural landscape still evident today. These new rulers had a good understanding of how to conserve and manage scarce water supplies. They are accredited for introducing new irrigation methods to the islands. Water harvesting machines like the norija or waterwheel, locally called is-sienja were also introduced. During this period, agriculture in Malta flourished. Woodlands were being cut down to make way for agricultural land space with the wood was used for ship building.

Is-Sienja: A wheel-type contraption driven by a draft animal, turns a number of buckets which draw up water from a deep artesian well fed by horizontal galleries which collect water from the groundwater table. Water is stored in a reservoir and distributed to the field via rock-cut channels. Is-sienja

With the fall of the Arab rule and Maltas feudal period, life for the Maltese was difficult. The population was subjected to constant pirate raids that made life precarious. The inhabitants deserted coastal areas and moved closer to the walled town of Mdina (in Malta) and Rabat (in Gozo). Those who lived on farms with no wall protection were often carried off into slavery, and so cultivation of crops became virtually impossible. Grain and other food importation became necessary.

The walled city of Mdina

During the rule of the Knights of St. John, often referred to as the Golden Age for Malta, various advances in overall health, education and wealth of the Maltese took place. Many Maltese learnt trades that were necessary during this period, whilst others were fully employed by the Order. In this period Malta used to export various food items, including oranges, orange-blossom water, lemons, preserved apricots, pomegranates, honey and cumin. Meat and poultry were also being consumed in large quantities, particularly by the Knights and their guests. Wild rabbit and game hunting are also mentioned as a common source of food in historical documents. Ice was imported from Etna in Sicily to make sorbet-like sweets. The two-year French rule in Malta hardly had any influence on the Maltese food system, but radical changes were experienced under the British rule, from 1800 to 1964. The addition of Malta to the British Empire was a voluntary request made by the Maltese people in an attempt to rid the Maltese islands of the French. It was soon evident that there was a willingness by the locals to succumb to the lifestyle of the new colonisers. Moreover, Maltas strategic location in the centre of the Mediterranean made it an excellent station for British Armed Forces and many army and naval officers posted here brought along their families. As a result, a lot of food was imported and many Maltese were employed as housekeepers and cooks. The dietary habits of these British families were quickly adopted and adapted by the Maltese. Foods such as fry-ups, roast meat meals, custard, sponge cakes and puddings became staples in many local households.

During the French rule, under Napoleon command, the Maltese food system was hardly affected.

During World War II food was scarce. Many staples were rationed and the British government also organised the Victory Kitchens for the Maltese who were is a dire state of poverty. The Victory Kitchens and the immediate post-war period brought the introduction of new food like corned beef, cheddar cheese and butter which were unheard of before in Malta.

The Victory Kitchen

While British rule ended in 1964, its traces and influences on Maltese culture are still visible. This is particularly reflected in food consumption patterns for both everyday and special occasion meals. Yet the high fat, high sugar and salt-laden food that the Maltese grew accustomed to thanks to the British settlers, have had a negative impact on the health status of the Maltese population. (See below report extracts dated 1839 [early British rule] and 1988 [post British rule].)

Dietary Habits of the Maltese 1839 and 1988


The Maltese use very little animal food; bread, with vegetables of the country, and occasionally a little fish, forms their principal sustenance, and the healthy and efficient state of the corps may no doubt be attributed to the important circumstance that, in becoming soldiers, they have not been required to change the simple diet which nature seems to have pointed out to the inhabitants of all southern latitudes as most conducive to their health.
Statistical Report on the Sickness, Mortality and Invaliding Among the Troops in the United Kingdom, the Mediterranean and the British America. London, 1839, p29a.

Available dietary data show the average Maltese diet is not a healthy one. It is especially rich in fats and sugar and low in fibre. The Maltese are now faced with new health risks which are associated with eating too much of certain types of food.
Formulation of a Nutrition Policy Report of the First Conference on Nutrition in Malta. WHO Regional Office for Europe, 1988.

During the mid-1970s and 1980s, Malta experienced a period of restricted food importation. These restrictions led to the promotion of local products. New local products were produced for the local market and for exportation, and this enhanced the local economy. New agricultural crops were also cultivated for local and foreign markets. One example is Maltese potatoes, still highly regarded to date in the Netherlands. Onions and capers also started being exported.
Maltese potatoes for export

In the late 1980s, the importation market was liberalised. This meant new food products were available on the market. Maltese consumers had freedom to choose from both local and foreign products. In fact, importation of new foodstuffs ran rampant. Local products had a lot of competition and in the long run their production had to be stopped due to price and quality competition. The tourism industry in the 1970s and 1980s also had an impact on the food system in Malta. Locals had to be trained to prepare foreign food cuisines so as to gratify the gastronomic needs of the visiting tourists. This availability of different dishes in restaurants and hotels also led to the introduction of new foods and food preparation methods in Maltese households. Modernisation also brought with it the introduction to the island of fast food chain outlets. These were sprouting rapidly in the late 1990s taking over the local pastizzeria outlets. Nowadays, both modern and traditional snack food outlets coexist, although this fast food craze seems to have contributed to a deterioration in the Maltese health status with increased incidences of diet-related diseases, particularly obesity amongst the younger generation. Recently, there has been a growing interest in the rediscovery of traditional Maltese food. This may have been partly spurred by a similar international movement to safeguard local traditional foods, as well as by demand by tourists who are also seeking the local fare when visiting the islands. Farmers co-operatives are forming to develop and package products made from local crops. New recipe books provide an insightful and practical introduction to traditional Maltese food. The Ministry of Tourism is also promoting local produce by organising food festivals like The Mediterranean Food Festival, the Wine festival or the Festa tat-Tonn (tuna feast). Similarly, Local Councils in towns and villages are organising special theme days Maltese traditional food or weekends such as Il-Festa tal-ob (bread feast) in Qormi. A movement called Fondazzjoni Fulkar was founded to create awareness about Maltese food culture by disseminating information through the organisation of courses about Maltese and Mediterranean food aimed at the general public and specialists alike. Even local stamps have been minted with traditional food images (e.g. the fenkata rabbit stew, which is known as the national dish, and the b ar mimli - stuffed peppers, a common dish in Malta).

These recent initiatives could be considered a step in the right direction to a more sustainable food system, where local produce is given a boost, and healthier food is consumed for the benefit of the islands economy and Maltese society in general. Hopefully, our children who are presently eating less traditional foods and opting for a more Westernised diet, as their Mediterranean counterparts, will see light and begin to appreciate their ancestors gastronomy and realise its nutritive and sustainable benefits.

Further Reading http://www.springerlink.com/content/g5ql4g1m97612845/ Paper titled: The Maltese food system and the Mediterranean by P. J. Atkins and M. Gastoni that seeks to understand the Maltese food system in the context of its history and its geographical position within a broad Mediterranean setting of food production, processing, marketing and consumption. Accessed: February 4, 2009 http://www.drustvo-antropologov.si/AN/PDF/2006_1/Anthropological_Notebooks_XII1_8.pdf Article titled: When Tradition Becomes Trendy: Social distinction in Maltese Food Culture by Elise Billiard, which delves into the historical and social aspects of the Maltese Food Culture. Accessed: February 4, 2009

http://www.imednet.it/DELTA/download2/newsletter/3_EN.pdf Article titled: Gastronomy and Typical Products: A Way to Develop Territorial Cultural System by Nadia Theuma. Accessed: February 4, 2009