Where we're going this evening - MaltaTonight's trip is right to the very south of Europe, to the Mediterranean where the tiny republic of Malta nestles just off the tip of Sicily, and a stone's throw from the north African coastline.
There are fewer than half a million Maltese on an island of just 120 square miles. What a tiny country! By comparison, I live near the second city of Birmingham which is just slightly smaller than Malta at 105 square miles, with a population of well over 2 million.
Although small, Malta does not lack historical significance - this stems from being in a strategic position equidistant from Europe and Africa. In fact, there's been a real revolving door of conquerors - the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, the Spanish, Knights of St John, the French, and - just so we don't feel left out - the British.
The Maltese are a plucky lot, and did such a great deal for the allies in the second world war that King George VI awarded the George Cross to the whole island. Life's a bit quieter these days, and Malta is it's own country - and has adopted a policy of neutrality - and is part of the Commonwealth and the European Union.
Malta's strategic position at the top end of the Suez canal means that the main trade is from maritime services, although, what with the weather being rather nice, tourism is important to the economy too.
The Maltese seem to be a superstitious lot (perhaps that stems from having your door kicked in be the next round of oppressors every five minutes), with plenty of quirks and customs, particularly relating to fertility and childraising, some of which are a bit odd (dangle a wedding ring on a thread over the unborn child and depending which way is moves will indicate the sex of the child);, some of which are a bit creepy, if you ask me (avoiding cemeteries when pregnant).
With such a small population, I'm struggling to find famous Maltese (besides the father of a friend of mine at junior school, but he doesn't really count) - but I must give a mention to Darren Attard, who appears in a long list of Maltese dignitaries and politicians; his claim to fame being as 'Australia's best youngest Elvis impersonator'. Good luck to you, Darren.
On that note, we'd better get all shook up and say hello to the Maltese...
This is a bit of a tricky one - Malta has a whole heap of influences on its cuisine from all those marauders over the years. Rabbit seems to be a big deal, as well as some stuffed breads and sweets.
I didn't fancy cooking rabbit, but Lampuki fish seems to come in as a close second in terms of popularity, so that'll do me.
Ghadam tal-mejtin is a traditional almond biscuit dish cooked at the beginning of November to celebrate the feasts of all saints and all souls. The name translates as 'dead man's bones' and the biscuits are shaped into bone shapes before cooking. Lovely. Told you they were a bit weird...
Lampuki Pie (Fish Pie) - recipe from Felice in the Kitchen
Lampuki fish is fried & deboned (I cheated and used cod fillets from Aldi), then set aside. Gently fry chopped onions, crushed garlic, spinach leaves, chopped tomatoes, peas and lemon zest (I used orange zest). Optional are chopped olives (yuk! not round here, matey). The veg and fish are combined then baked in a pie.
Ghadam Tal-Mejtin (Dead Man's Bones) - recipe from About Malta
Whisk egg whites until very thick then beat in almond essence, caster sugar and ground almonds. Fashion into bone shapes (ha! this is impossible!) and bake. Cover with icing or a sprinkle of icing sugar.
And what have we learnt?
- Believe the recipe when it calls for such a large sack of spinach that you struggle to get it through the front door. Spinach defies the law of physics in that once you've wrestled into the biggest pan you have and forced lid on, within a minute you have a smear of green on the bottom of the pan and that's it.
- Zest should be used in moderation unless you want your otherwise delicious pie to have a really citrus zing to it.
- Some recipes are either just wrong, or I seriously misinterpreted something. After beating in the ground almonds into the beaten egg whites, the consistency of the mixture certainly was not shapeable. Even adding perhaps half as much ground almonds again, it was only just about stiff enough to handle, and then it was sticky, sticky, sticky. I compromised with blobs.
And out of 10?
- for the lumpaki pie - a pleasing 7/10 - I think it would be a bit of a faff to buy whole fish then skin and fillet before putting the pie together, but the fillets I bought were perfect. A lovely taste - if a bit, er, fruity.
- For the Ghadam tal-mejtin - an unsuccessful 3/10. I must have cocked something up somewhere - or I should have cross-referenced with another recipe for this dish. Once the damn sticky mixture was cooked into cookies, they tasted like macaroons, but more chewy. Not my cup of tea.