Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The feast of Imnarja and the Maltese traditional dish - Il-Fenkata

Yesterday, June 29th, we Maltese, celebrated the feast of St Peter and St Paul, more commonly known as Imnarja, (derived from the Italian Luminaria meaning illumination). It probably refers to the bonfires that were lit up during this feast. This major festival commenced in the time of the Knights of Malta who could eat rabbit any time they chose and enjoyed hunting them for sport. And to add insult to injury they prohibited us Maltese from eating rabbit with the one exception of the feast of Imnarja.

So to make up for what the Maltese were missing they used to flock to Rabat on the eve of the feast, on foot or using horse and mule driven carts. They would then gather at Saqqaja, on top of the hill in Rabat, and would recite the rosary and other prayers. Later they would join the Bishop and his Cathedral Chapter in the procession towards Mdina. Accompanying the procession one would also find the daqqaqa and the folklore singers (the troubadours) wearing priestly robes. Later on they would drink, cook rabbit, sing folksongs and dance away the night. In the past marriage contracts also stipulated that the husband must take his intended wife to the festival of Imnarja.

Nowadays Imnarja is celebrated in and around the historic town of Rabat and features an agricultural fair with local produce on sale, livestock competitions, marching bands and horse racing in the afternoon. The most traditional and folkloric part of the festival takes place in woodland at Buskett, near Rabat, where people from all over the island flock to enjoy folk music and singing. Beneath the trees, people linger until late at night, tucking in to rabbit stew (il-fenkata) which is a Maltese speciality. If you think of rabbits as pets rather than good food providers, I suggest you skip this meal. Many people, however, enjoy this traditional Maltese meal.

The fenkata has now become the national dish and is promoted on tourist menus. A Fenkata today is best described as a kind of rabbit outing or celebration where a family or group of friends goes out into the country to eat a dish of spaghetti and rabbit. The rabbit, marinated overnight in wine, garlic and bay leaf, is lightly browned with a very delicious sauce made up of garlic, wine, curry, carrots and peas and tomato sauce, then simmered for several hours, ideally in a terracotta casserole. Restaurants usually serve it with chips (the ubiquitous British legacy), and crusty local bread to soak up the rich sauces. Traditionally rabbit stew is served on spaghetti.
Yesterday I took a photo of my rabbit stew in the making, followed by another one served on a plate.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Cricket (Il-Grillu)

I used to think that the sound that emanated from the cicada in the morning was the same as that which the cricket produced at night. It took me a long time to realise that these two insects were completely different from each other. The diurnal insect is the one which we call il-werzieq in Maltese (cicada), whereas the nocturnal one is called il-grillu (cricket).

In the past the latter insect was very popular with the Maltese children. They used to capture this poor insect and put it inside jars so that they would hear it strumming its legs to produce its chirping sound at night inside the children’s homes. Most often they used to capture more than one and then they used to spend their time selecting which one of the crickets made the loudest sound.

Since this insect seeks warm temperatures and humid places we often hear it singing during summer nights. During the day the cricket seeks shelter under the foliage. The cricket's sound can be heard from afar but it’s not that easy to detect its place of concealment. It has a knack of hiding itself well. Moreover, as soon as the cricket detects sound it stops immediately making it all the more difficult to discover where its hiding place could be.
Sadly enough, certain human activities, coupled with the high population density, are threatening this insect. These threats which have significantly reduced the extent of many insects’ and animals’ habitats are mainly related to Malta’s relatively large built-up land area. Whereas before we used to hear a whole cacophony of crickets at night now you might hear one every so often.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Irresistible Hobz Biz-Zejt

No bread compares to the traditional Maltese loaf and I’m sure that many out there agree with me. It’s so wholesome and tasty and yet so plain! As in many other places, what was poor man's fare is now rich man's favour. Not that one has to be rich to acquire such food. Many Maltese still eat it as a snack or as part of their supper. Both the stonecutter in the quarry and the farmer in the field, as well the family relaxing by the seaside on a delicious Summer evening, all love to dig their teeth into this tasty meal. It satisfies the taste buds and fills the stomach in the simplest and most complete way. It is inexpensive and easy to prepare, but it is true that richer foods and faster food have replaced most of what today can be considered as traditional food.
In the past, the manual workers used to take lunch which consisted of half a loaf of our excellent bread, hollowed out and filled with tomatoes, oil, olives, anchovies and accompanied by a glass of wine. They then wrapped it up in a cloth for freshness and then sliced it up with a penknife at the time of eating. It was very filling and practical especially for outdoor workers. This tradition is unfortunately giving way to the more regular sandwich.

When I sometimes pass in front of a bakery the heavenly smell of baking bread evokes memories of when dad used to come from work carrying with him a freshly baked bread still crackling hot. We kids used to make a feast with a simple loaf of bread. Mum sliced the bread and we siblings were left free to prepare our Hobz biz-Zejt the way we wanted. I was usually allowed to have the round crusty part (il-genba) from which I dug out the middle and filled it up with all the stuff that I could get hold of.

The term ‘Hobz tal-Malti’ makes me conjure up images of this delicious snack eaten on the sand, watching the sun set, with the salty sea smell lingering on one’s skin. Hobz biz-zejt somehow always tastes better eaten at the beach – did you ever realise that? So what exactly is this hobz biz-zejt? If I had to translate this term it would literally mean "Bread with oil” which up to a certain extent is true because drizzled oil is one of the basic ingredients but it has more than just that. And what goes on in this Hobz biz-Zejt??

The first thing you have to do is to get hold of a fresh Maltese loaf (hobza). The crust should be cracked and crunchy and the middle soft and white. Cut thick slices of bread. Halve a couple of ripe summer tomatoes and rub the cut side over the bread until it gets a reddish hue. If using tomato paste, (kunserva) just spread over the bread. Next dip one side of the bread into a plate of good olive oil. Or else you can drizzle the oil onto the bread. Sprinkle with salt and freshly cracked black pepper. That’s the basic recipe. What follows is up to you. You can either have it as it is or else add some of the following ingredients. The other ingredients vary widely, although capers and olives are almost universally included. Here is the list of ingredients I compiled:

Butter beans marinated in garlic and oil, olives, marinated vegetables, lettuce, anchovies, tuna, onion slices, peppered cheeselets (gbejniet), capers, marjoram, mint, basil, pickled onions, bigilla, sundried tomatoes, cucumber slices, artichoke hearts and even ham. Yes!! I was told that the Qormi people like having their hobz biz-zejt with ham! My dad who hails from that town often puts ham in it and I can vouch that it is very tasty.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

'Non Gode L'Immunita Ecclesiastica'

Wayside chapels have been a feature of the Maltese landscape for at least 500 years. Their origin dates back to the times when the Maltese Islands were much more sparsely populated, and the many small isolated farming communities found it necessary to erect their own places of worship. One of the characteristics of these chapels is the marble plaque near their entrance: NON GODE L’IMMUNITÀ ECCLESIASTICA. It was a warning to malefactors. This means that the chapel did not have the privilege of giving protection to those who had committed a crime. In the past many churches had this privilege of protecting criminals from the civil authorities. Those that did not have this privilege fixed this plaque to their facades.

In the past the church in Malta was immune from civil law jurisdiction, and this permitted malefactors to escape justice by taking refuge in a church or chapel. This meant that anybody breaking the law had the chance to flee for sanctuary into any church and hence could not be arrested by the authorities as long as one stayed inside. The crime rate in the mid-eighteenth century was quite high. Burglary, theft, deception, defrauding, brawling and fighting were the order of the day. It was not only ordinary lower class men who came into conflict with the law by stealing cattle or by committing any other crime. In those days, even the Hospitaller Knights broke the law by brawling and fighting duels, although they were prohibited to engage in such activities. Even a respected priest, once, stole plenty of silver plates from the French Auberge!!!

Fugitives hiding for sanctuary in churches often were supplied with all necessities, such as foodstuff and clothing, by friends and relatives. Some of them were able to hide out for 30 to 40 years or even until they died!! Unbelievable!! These people must have had a strong resilience. Although the British government abolished this immunity permanently in 1828, many existing chapels did not remove the small plaque on their facades.

The Old Red Telephone Booth

Our island, due to its strategic importance has been conquered by a sequence of powers including the Phoenicians, Romans, Fatimids, Sicilians, Knights of St John, French and British.

It was in 1800, that Malta voluntarily became part of the British Empire. The British took over Malta, and transformed the island into a Naval base. It wasn't until 1964, after 100 years of British rule, that the islands were granted independence and eventually became a Republic in 1974. It's been 35 years now since the Britons left our country but so many things around us still bear traces of their influence on our country. The famous red telephone booths which can be spotted in certain old streets in Malta are one such example .

The red telephone box was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. It's not only a familiar sight on the streets of the United Kingdom and Malta, but also in Bermuda and Gibraltar - the latter two being also ex-British colonies. Sir Scott originally suggested mild steel colour for the kiosks but the British Post Office chose the colour red to make them easy to spot. Some of these phone booths in use today have been converted to internet kiosks.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Home-Made Chocolate Ice-Cream

Four years ago my sister gave me an ice-cream maker. It took me almost 3 years to try the machine out. The reason was that I hadn't enough space in my first freezer to put the ice-bowl inside. So my poor machine had to wait until I got my long awaited large freezer to see the light of day.

To be honest, the first ice-cream (which happened to be a strawberry one) was in my opinion a flop. It tasted really good but it was very runny. I had not refrigerated the ice-bowl and milk long enough for the ice-cream to achieve the desired texture.

The second time round I tried a vanilla recipe. This time I made sure that the milk and cream were really cold before using them for the recipe. And yes the vanilla ice-cream was really delicious. One day I would like to get my hands on a vanilla pod and make a real vanilla ice-cream. So far I have not set my eyes on any vanilla pods in any Southern supermarket.

My third attempt was a chocolate one - the best one so far. I just couldn't resist having spoonfuls of it while it was churning in my ice-cream maker. So creamy and irresistible!! And it turned out so good that I thought of sharing this easy recipe with you.

What you need:
200g fresh cream (refrigerated and whipped)
250ml milk (refrigerated)
100g sugar
50g cocoa powder
and ice-cream maker of course!

Yes, that's all you need! Just mix the ingredients, put the mixture in the fridge for about an hour and a half then pour it in the ice-cream maker and hey presto in twenty minutes you'll be indulging in a home-made ice-cream with a deep and rich chocolate flavour.

The Chapel of Our Lady of Light (Il-Kappella tal-Madonna tad-Dawl), Bidni Area, Marsascala

On your way to Marsascala, via the old route, there is a country lane on the right hand side that takes you to an area known as Bidni. In a completely rural setting, with crickets and sparrows providing background music you can visit the 18th century chapel of Our Lady of the Light as I did two weeks ago.

This chapel was built in the second half of the 18th Century and replaced another chapel which was dedicated to St John the Baptist. Unfortunately, this chapel was closed by the bishop for lack of decent upkeep. At that time the Maltese were still very wary of building on the coast and many chapels were neglected. The new chapel was dedicated to Our Lady of Light and it immediately attracted popular devotion. Meanwhile, people from all over Malta flocked here to pay her their homage.

The most interesting things found in this chapel are the 23 "ex voto" paintings kept in the vestry. These are small pictures made as fulfillment of vows to Our Lady of Light, mostly for assistance given to mariners in storms or in naval battles with the Turks. These paintings are fine specimens of popular art. They should be valued for the evidence they give of the devotion of the Maltese fishermen and the Knights towards the Madonna.

In each painting you see the letters V.F.G.A. (Voto Fatto, Grazia Acquisita -I received the grace after I had made the vow). Most of these small paintings belong to the 18th Century, with the oldest dating back to the year 1727. There are also relics from galleys, as fragments of rigging, likewise offered as fulfillment of some vow. This custom of offering Ex Voto paintings continued well in the 20th Century.

The main painting shows Our Lady holding the Child Jesus and helping save a Purgatory soul. Two other saints, John the Baptist, who reminds us of the previous chapel, and St Francis of Paola, a popular saint at the time, are also seen in this picture. On top of this painting there's a short Latin inscription, "Profer Lumen Caecis" (Give Sight to the Blind), a brief prayer to the Madonna, and beneath the painting "Mater Sanctissima Luminis" (Most Holy Mother of Light. "Tad-Dawl" is the Maltese for "of light").

Another writing on the door says that Rev. Lawrence Degabriele, Archpriest of Zejtun, repaired the chapel after the terrible storm of March 9, 1908, had inflicted great damage on it. It is said that this chapel remained under the administration of the Zejtun clergy because it was a priest from Zejtun than managed to give the last rites to a person dying at Bidni. Certain objects in nearby buildings are worth noticing, as a sundial and the stone loops for the erection of flagpoles on the 8th September, the day when the feast was held.

Pinned to the door of the chapel was a note advising the faithful when the next mass would be held. It added a human touch – and it was good to know that the chapel is still in use.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Historical Salt Pans in Marsascala (Is-Salini)

Walking along the coast of Marsascala from the Dolcelatte ice-cream shop towards St Thomas Bay you are bound to see some rocks which have been painstakingly carved out into salt pans and which are a historical attraction in themselves. They probably date back to Roman ages. The irregular shapes of the pans fitting together like intricate patchwork make a wonderful sight. I have been told that salt is still being collected from these salt pans. One family has worked in the salt pans for many years, possibly generations. These salt collectors usually start work at around 5:30am to avoid the scorching heat of the sun.