The rocky island of Malta is home to some beautiful rustic recipes that sing of Mediterranean flavour and freshness. Maltese cuisine is truly peasant cuisine, using vegetables in season, home-made cheeses and some of the cheaper cuts of meat. These are cooked slowly with fresh tomatoes, parsley and garlic to create tender stews with lots of flavour.
One of the famous meat dishes is bragioli or beef olives, a rolled stuffed piece of meat cooked slowly. Rabbit is also extremely popular and many Maltese families raise their own. Meals are large and served communally - the famous baked pasta pie timpana generally feeds a small army of people.
Many dishes are able to be served as two meals - the tomato based stews like stuffat tal-fenek (braised rabbit) and stuffat tal-qarnit (octopus stew) are examples with the rich flavoursome tomato sauce served with pasta as a first course and the meat served with vegetables as main course. Snacks are popular- from the now famous pastizzi to the home-made sandwich hobzs biz-zejt.
Pulses are popular both fresh and dried. One of the famous dips is called bigilla, made from dried broad beans cooked and mashed with garlic, hot pepper and anchovies and eaten with crusty bread. Also made with crusty bread is hobz biz-zejt, which translates as bread with oil. It was once the portable lunch taken to the fields during a long day's work. Thick slices of bread are spread with the beloved sweetish tomato paste called kunserva and topped with capers, olives, garlic, black pepper and a drizzle of olive oil. Sometimes tuna or anchovies are added. Another snack has become well known in Australia - the flakey golden filled pastries called pastizzi which are sold on street corners and village bars and eaten hot with black tea or coffee.
Maltese cheese is simple and home-made - the soft fresh cheese called gbejniet is eaten during a meal or with fresh figs or grapes to finish. An aged version comes plain or rolled in fine black pepper and is eaten as a snack - both have a sweet slightly nutty taste.
There have been many influences on Maltese food as different nations have visited or invaded the island - the French, English, Germans, Arabs and Italians have all left their mark. The Italian influence is probably the strongest. Ravioli and macaroni are popular but made in the Maltese way - the ravioli are stuffed with ricotta cheese and generally larger than the Italian variety and cooked to a softer texture.
Maltese sweets show many of the influences of other countries - the Arab influence is seen in biscuits stuffed with a date mixture and the English bread and butter pudding is a more solid chocolate version in Malta, eaten hot or cold. Fruit served chilled is always part of a dessert spread - stone fruit, figs, melons, pears, grapes, citrus and pomegranates.