Firstly I must apologize for the lateness of this week’s post. Scorching temperatures, electricity blackouts among other things have led to a lack of cooking but also a lack of energy. Its been a time for a little reflection on my journey from very traditional Irish cooking to dipping my toe into that of the Mediterranean over the past 18 years. As I realized last week I am now seven years in Malta, I thought I would share what is in my opinion, the ultimate Maltese sandwich, Ftira.
If there is one thing as a tourist, a local, or ex-pat you will most certainly eat at some point its a Ftira and Ħobż biż-żejt (pronounced hobs bizz ate). Every schoolchild learns this from early on and many a tourist is seen trying to get their teeth around the combination of crusty bread, tomatoes, oil, and tuna filling. I find great amusement watching super skinny people exhausted by the effort of chewing after only a couple of bites. So in a celebration of something Maltese from our crazy rock in the sun. I thought I’d we could break bread together and celebrate a little bit of Malta.
Ħobż means bread. So you will have Ħobż Malti (Maltese Bread), which is like a country loaf, Ħobż Toast( sliced bread for toasting) Ftira (round flat crunchy bread) and Ħobż biż-żejt (oil and bread) which generally uses chunks of Maltese bread dipped in oil, with salt and occasionally balsamic vinegar. However, when it comes to a true Maltese sandwich both the idea of Ħobż biż-żejt and Ftria are combined by their fillings. Tomato paste, olive oil, salt, olives, capers, tomatoes, and tuna. We use a tomato paste called Kunserva, which I have only ever seen in Malta. Any paste will do. The flatbread of Fitra is soft on the inside, somewhere between a country loaf and a sourdough while the outside is hard. It is shaped in a circle, with a small hole in the center. The local bread bakeries, found in most villages will have these warm straight out of the oven by 8 in the morning and even earlier. You will see the local women heading to the bakeries either before 7 mass or straight after. It’s worth watching the local nannas movements to know where to go when you move to a foreign country. lol!
To make this, if you cannot find a Ftira, use a country loaf, sourdough, or even ciabatta. Simply spread on the tomato paste, top with good olives, capers, sliced tomato, tuna, a sprinkle of basil or marjoram if you like, and even sliced onion or crushed garlic. Drizzle with olive oil, season, replace the top, and enjoy. It is a great picnic sandwich.
The fusion of culinary influence in Malta is not lost on me. Oils, tomato paste, olives, pastries, ricotta, artichoke, Bigilla, and loaves of bread are but a few. The Italian influence is huge here, particularly in terms of religion, coffee, pasta, dessert, and seafood dishes. The food here is not refined. It is rustic. Even this Ftira, is heavily influenced by Italy in its toppings, yet middle eastern meets the Mediterranean in the bread, flat yet soft and crunchy. A perfect fusion made into a sandwich. Malta may be a small island unknown for its culinary achievements, However, what it has done unbeknown to even itself is taken all those invasions and infused them into its own culinary journey.
Finally, as I celebrate 7 years here I thought I would share a collage of pictures of this at times crazy little collection of 3 islands floating out in the Mediterranean which has become home.