Despite the veil of darkness, the splendor of Valletta hums softly against dim streetlights after our flight lands. I get a glimpse of the city’s ornate facades that make you feel like you’ve stumbled into a baroque masterpiece. This is all confirmed the next morning thanks to a rooftop view after breakfast. We head up, minding our heads as we navigate the narrow, black spiral staircase––the norm for Valletta where there simply isn’t much space. That is, until you find yourself in the countryside or diving into the depths of the sea in search of the island’s many mysteries.
From the rooftop, we see all of Valletta slowly coming to life under a sun we Berliners had yet to see in the young new year. For that, I’m wildly grateful. It’s almost exclusively why we came. I wish I could say we came for far more noble pursuits––interest in learning about a new country, its people, and its culture. That quickly became a strong motivator once we landed on Malta for our January escape. But it all started with reacquainting ourselves with that fiery orb in the sky.
At the street level, I’m drawn to Italian comparisons––like Verona where you’re just overwhelmed by the beauty of every single building, street, and alleyway that surrounds you. But from above, I’m back in Fez or Tunis with their scale of light-brown colored, Tetris-like buildings and rooftop television satellites pointing to the heavens above. I can see the Three Cities, urbanized peninsulas reaching out towards Valletta that is effectively part of the city with ferries regularly skating across the harbor.
It’s a thrilling sight to see––something so remarkably different from my every day, that it’s crystal clear I’m traveling again.
Getting Familiar with Malta
Now that I’m here and have the sun at my back, I do want to know more about where I am, the people, and what they eat. For some light prep, I read what I could find from a cursory search online. That search led me to “It’s A Long Way To Malta” by Irish author Paddy Cummins, a long-time winter resident of the island, and “The Jew of Malta”––a play (that’s at times comically, ridiculously antisemitic) written in the 16th Century by Christopher Marlowe, a contemporary of Shakespeare himself. The former is a breezy introduction to the island from a foreigner’s point of view and the latter is less about Malta and more about Marlowe’s views on religion.
I also took in a handful of podcasts, namely history lessons. You learn about the island’s supposed role in the stories of Odysseus, St. Paul crashing on the island around the year 60 of the Common Era, the loss of Arabic control, the attempted invasions, the successful invasions, the Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John who held off the Ottomans in the Great Siege of 1565, moved the capital from Mdina to their new creation, Valletta, and continued to run the island for centuries before Napolean and then the British took over just in time to take more bombs than London during World War II before finally gaining their independence in 1964.
That’s all well and good to know, but everything I could find was someone else talking about Malta and the Maltese. So, I signed up for a food tour as my first order of business in Valletta to learn more about this island that’s seen it all while filling my stomach.
Chris is as warm and affable as you’d expect in a food tour guide. He’s come prepared with water bottles in his backpack for guests, but more importantly, he’s carrying our first bites of the tour––pastizzi. These flaky morsels of deliciousness contain either ricotta or mushy peas. The ricotta, Chris explains, is the Arabic influence of the island. The mushy peas are a more recent addition, learned from the island’s British rulers during that final period of colonialism.
I take a bite of the ricotta first, the butter shining on my fingertips as flakes of the phyllo escape into the wind.
“Pastizzi is the plural, but I would never order a ‘Pastizz’ because it’s slang for a dumbass,” Chris explains with a smile as I nosh into the perfect block of ricotta in my first warm pastizzi. He also notes the diamond shape of the Maltese breakfast item that would, let’s just say, make Georgia O’Keefe proud.
Between the two, Chris prefers the pastizzi with mushy peas. I have to agree. I find it slightly more savory with a hint of curry flavor. But at the end of the day, I’d happily take either one.
Next, we meander over to the bus terminal outside of the stone city walls of Valletta. Chris pops over to a stand and comes back with piping hot imqaret (pronounced ‘imharet’)––a Maltese pastry stuffed with a date spread cultivated from the island’s dates. I take a bite once mine cools down enough to avoid a gluttonous second-degree burn of the mouth.
That’s when I realize I’m eating what tastes like a giant Nutri-Grain bar. The exterior is crunchy, on account of the frying, but the filling takes me back to sneaking in bar after bar at out my parents’ kitchen cupboard. Of course, this time, I’m standing underneath the slots where canons once fired at invading enemies.
As we finish our imqaret, a punishing wind starts up with light rain. Everyone floods across the bridge through the city gates like some kind of meteorological Pavlov’s dog. Luckily, there’s plenty of room for everyone to get through the gate at once. That wasn’t always so. Chris shows off pictures of the original gate––as stately as any you’d find in Prague. Although much was lost in Valletta during the war, the gate was not a casualty. Valletta demolished the original gate itself. Why? So massive Carnival floats could easily slide through and into the city. Plus, they didn’t really have as many enemies to worry about anymore.
Watching the storm clouds pass, Chris continues with a bit of a sojourn through Maltese history. He points out the ancient marine fossils embedded into the ground we’re walking on and how the Brits brought Neoclassical architecture to the city’s famously Baroque facade. Seeing it all, it’s hard to believe that 40% of the city was bombed during World War II. It all looks remarkably unscathed to the untrained eye. But look closely enough and you can see the chunks nipped out of buildings across the city and surrounding the completely demolished opera house turned outdoor theater with the ruins of the original columns left standing.
The Chocolate District
We take a break from the history to head into the Chocolate District for some traditional Maltese coffee. “Watch your head” becomes a common warning in Valletta where the entry to many buildings immediately leads down a series of stone steps almost like walking into a cave. I crouch inside and find a seat at a table with a full view of the small shop.
Malta, we’re told, was the first European country to have coffee thanks to the Knights of St. John who raided passing Ottoman ships. Locals thought it looked like a magical potion and it was at first forbidden. Eventually, it became a big business.
But it’s not like Turkish or Greek coffee with its grounds pooling at the bottom of the cup. Maltese coffee is infused with chicory, cloves, and anise. It’s got that “taste of the holidays” but not too overpowering. These days, Maltese coffee isn’t an everyday affair. It takes too much time to make.
“What do Maltese think about Starbucks?” a woman in our group asks.
“That’s not coffee, madame!” the owner replies from another room.
Maltese coffee is saved for special occasions, like, apparently, food tours. They serve the coffee in small servings, warming up the cups later on, and pair it with bites of their specialty chocolates. There’s one with sea salt mined from the adjacent Gozo island, another with hops from the Maltese Lord Chambray Brewery, Maltese olive oil, and my favorite, a bar of chocolate infused with local sheep’s cheese that they dry on the rooftop, vinegar, and spicy peppers that leave the slightest dose of heat on your tongue. The latter is a subtle combination that forces you to think about the flavors, impressing yourself when you can spot them.
The olive oil in stock is another specialty of the island––white olive oil. French emperors used to ask for the white olives used for the olive oil. Now, the Maltese are trying to repopulate the island to use it more frequently themselves, typically with bread and maybe a piece of cheese. You never cook with it and we’re warned that it won’t do justice to the olive oil to mix it with balsamic.
Noon is approaching, so head towards the Upper Barrakka Gardens for the daily shot of the cannon. We’re ushered over to a patio overlooking the scene of cannons facing the harbor and a couple of Maltese officials dressed in pointy white helmets and dark blue capes. A recorded announcement––backed by a cheesy, dramatic instrumental soundtrack that sounds like a blending of The Lion King and Gladiator––explains that canons were used to measure the passing of time and announce incoming news.
Midday? BOOM. Fire the canon.
City gates closing for the day? BOOM. Fire the canon.
Invaders coming? BOOM. Fire the canon. (And hide, probably.)
On cue, the soldier fires the canon, letting out a powerful, short explosion of smoke over the sunny harbor. It’s followed by an air siren to commemorate the lives lost to the Axis bombing during World War II.
Qassatat and Twisties
Now that we know what time it is, we continue the tour and head to a bakery in its fourth generation, Cafe Micallef. Here, we’re presented with a Qassatat on a plate––a thick, baked dough filled with spinach and anchovies. It looks and feels like a knish in my hand. While we nosh, Chris points out how reliable and essential these rustic-styled family bakeries are for Maltese people.
“Salaries haven’t gone up with the price of a good meal at a restaurant,” he explains. “People still make just one or two thousand euros a month.” Not to mention the cost of living has skyrocketed since the start of the pandemic. Malta is especially vulnerable, being an island that’s heavily reliant on shipping.
As Chris makes his point, we’re treated to a favorite snack––Twisties, a cheesy, rice-based snack that would be a post-homework snack. “They’re like Cheetos, but better,” Chris says. “They’re addictive, let me prepare you.”
Eating the Maltese equivalent of Cheetos was not what I expected when I signed up, but Chris explains that he wants to show tourists what Maltese actually eat during the time of day we were together. Like other Mediterranean diets, breakfast isn’t the show that it can be in the US. You grab a pastizzi and get on with your day. It’s about packing in a lot in a little bit of time.
Of course, if you want to spend a ton of money on Michelin-starred restaurants in Valletta, you can. And in fact, Chris is working on another tour that takes you out for a Maltese dinner, complete with Maltese booze. Guests, if so inclined, can try some Maltese rabbit––the only wild game you can hunt in the country.
The Original Squid Game
While we digest our latest treat, Chris walks us over to the Grandmaster Palace Courtyard, a scene that will look familiar to anyone who’s traveled to a European square, place, piazza, Platz, or plaza. Chris’ interest in the courtyard, though, is in a hole in the ground covered by an opaque casing. It was where they used to raise their maypole. Maypoles were used in traditional European festivals. But the Grand Master, which has a strangely KKK ring to an American ear, used it for what Chris calls the original Squid Games.
He shows us drawings depicting the scene. Every year, the maypole would be outfitted with food left out to taunt impoverished Maltese. (It’s important to note that the knights running the joint weren’t actually Maltese.) The maypole became a sadistic game whereupon the Grand Master’s order, people could climb the maypole and keep whatever they got a hold of. Naturally, this often led to serious injury and even death when falling from such heights.
One year, Chris explains, the Grand Master was taking his sweet time to come out onto his balcony to proclaim the beginning of these, well, Squid Games. Impatient and desperate, people started climbing the maypole. The Grand Master hears the commotion and comes out, furious to see that people started the festivities without his command. So, he orders them executed and a massacre ensues.
You might wonder what the Grand Master was doing that kept him from starting his sadistic game on time. Attending to important matters of state? Taking care of his children? Helping an old lady cross the street?
None of the above. Chris reveals that the Grand Master was supposedly in the midst of an orgy. And with that piece of twisted history rattling around our brains, we leave the courtyard and head to our final stop.
By now, we’re well into the lunch hour and offered Ftira––a Maltese sandwich full of tomato confit, capers from Gozo, tuna, olives, olive oil, and lettuce. Brass band music plays over the speakers behind the bar. There’s a scattering of simple wooden tables––the kind you’d expect at a local favorite. But look up and you realize you’re in something of a palace complete with the windows marked with the eight-pointed cross of the knights and a statue of Mr. Valletta himself, looking rather Shakespearean.
Then, the finger foods come. Snails in a tomato sauce that Chris says Maltese will forage after a rainy morning. There’s also fried pasta. I’m not the only one who thinks it looks like kugel.
“Don’t tell the Italians,” Chris laughs.
My favorite is the bigilia, a delicious paté of fava beans. We finish with a crumbly, Turkish-style halva paired with bajtra––a pink sweet liquor made from the fruit of cacti found on the island, brought over from Mexico long ago.
Before heading back to the hotel, I make one last stop––the pastizzeria. After sending a picture to Melanie, busy working remotely, she understandably demands that I procure her one. I’m all too happy to oblige, all the while grabbing another one for myself.
Heading to Malta? You can sign up for the same tour here. Meantime, continue this Maltese trip with some trail running on Gozo.