The MICHELIN stars are out, the Definitive(ly) Good Guide Plates have been presented to the awardees. A few other gastronomical accolades have landed on our shores.
This is all good news for Malta. The more we strive, the more we work at our restaurant fare, the more our reputation improves.
But is this enough? Or, rather, do we have a plan? Do we, as a nation, offer a gastronomical brand?
Sometimes we give the impression that, as long as the masses – both local and not – throng to our eating places, all is fine. As long as the cash tills, individually and nationally, sing a happy tune, we think we’ve done our job.
Of course, this is a part of the job. Without numbers, without restaurants all trying their utmost to attract custom, the scenario would not be feasible, no matter how many plans or ideals we harbour. Yet it seems to me – and I stand to be corrected – that a national gastronomic identity is lacking.
I’m definitely not suggesting that all is wrong with the local foodie world. If I did that I’d deserve to be boiled in a pot of one of our wonderful restaurants and passed on to the dogs to feast on.
A lot is happening and a lot has happened. The restaurant and local produce scene have come a long way these last few decades. All those who worked and sweated against the grain to offer a better product to both locals and travellers deserve saluting.
The choice is huge for any food lover. It has grown exponentially these past few years, and the food, drink and service available – at choice places – is glorious.
The worry is that, notwithstanding all this good work, there is something missing: there is no national core branding of what Malta’s gastronomy is and where it is heading. If there is and I have missed hearing about it, then I plead guilty. But I imagine that, if it is hard to perceive the branding, this does prove the point that it is non-existent or at most hardly visible.
Do we, as a country, as a whole, not as individual eating places, know what our nation produces? Not just that, but what is worth presenting as prize produce?
It doesn’t even necessarily need to be better than some foreign fare; it need only be good and local, therefore part of the experiential immersion in our heritage.
This is what most foreigners visiting a country want: not just to have good food and drink, but also, and above all, to find out and enjoy what is purely and typically Maltese.
For non-locals staying long-term, this is a wonderful learning curve. For us locals, we gain a sense of pride which we should all feel in what is Maltese and Gozitan. Pride in what is local does not mean or indicate a total blindness which leads to the exclusion of everything from abroad. The last thing which needs to be advocated is that we claim, by some mistaken identity crisis, that we have the best of anything in the world or region.
Local, if looked after, is more sustainable and more attractive to the people wanting to get a feel of what we do and who we are. Imagine going on a tour of France and the only wine you drink is Maltese. It’s not just impossible to achieve, it would be preposterous.
Go anywhere in Italy, France, Greece and Spain and what you find, or rather what is most presented, is what typifies the region. The choice of wine, oil, cheeses, bread, might be extensive, but the first available, and the ones made to look most appetising, are the local ones.
It’s not just availability but also knowledge. We – or most of us – lack knowledge of what we have which is ours. How many people know and talk about our two indigenous grape varieties? Travellers to Malta will encounter, and can taste, the normal varieties of grape anywhere in the world. But Ġellewża and Girgentina are available only here. The more we can tell the story of the wines from these grapes, and the more we can experience them, the better it is for the local branding of our gastronomy.
Our bread, the real old ħobża tal-Malti (Maltese bread loaf) when baked with a crunchy crust and cut unevenly, not like a slice of bread coming off a conveyor belt, is a wonderfully tasty experience. Add a drizzle of local oil and it’s even more glorious. But, more than because it is tasty, it should be presented as part of what we are. Other fancy bread, and oil from faraway places, might compete, and maybe even surpass the local offering, but ours is not the same you find away from our shores.
Therefore local, what distinguishes us, is worth celebrating.
It’s true more restaurants are catering in this vein but it is far from prevalent enough. There should be more local identification of our pick produce and more should be done to promote it. Our people in the kitchens, front of house, even the ones who write the text that explains what we have on offer, should all have a finger in this branding pie.
Our tourist numbers are growing, our food is good, our produce is good, our restaurants are doing a great job. If we add one ingredient to our vision, that of adding more local knowledge in the mix, then I feel we could be making our gastronomy more interesting.
Victor Calleja is a writer and columnist for Malta’s leading newspaper. For a number of years he edited Insider, a gastronomy and hospitality magazine. He also edited Archetype, centred around urban living. Victor loves anything connected to words, food, travel, and storytelling.