Maltese cuisine back on the menu | Michael Diacono

The Maltese restaurant scene has evolved beyond recognition in the last 30 years. But for established local chefs such as Michael Diacono, the challenge is as much about rediscovering Malta’s own traditional cuisine

raphael_vassallo
Raphael Vassallo
22 August 2016, 9:00am
Chef and manager at Giuseppi's Restaurant Michael Diacono
Chef and manager at Giuseppi's Restaurant Michael Diacono
Like any other country, Malta is home to its own idiosyncratic little features which make it the unique place it undeniably is. Often as not, these features tend to be culinary in nature.

Take the humble Maltese ‘pastizz’, for instance. There was more than just a concern with the loss of a late-night eatery, when ‘Is-Serkin’ of Rabat announced its imminent closure earlier this year. There was also an element of nostalgia, and even (why not?) patriotism in the widespread reactions. It was as though a little bit of Malta’s identity was being lost forever.

On a similar note, news that Giuseppi’s had relocated from Mellieha – where it had stood as a landmark restaurant for over 30 years – to the Salini Resort in Salina, seemed to reflect more than just a new phase for an established restaurant. It also seems to underscore a profound sea change that has taken over the entire industry in recent years, as the nature of Malta’s relationship with food and dining slowly evolved.

Giuseppi’s has not closed down altogether. And as chef and manager Michael Diacono will shortly explain, there were entirely practical reasons for the change of venue. But even if Mellieha’s loss turns out to be Salina’s gain, the change itself speaks volumes about the pace of Malta’s culinary evolution. Giuzeppi’s is but one of a long list of local restaurants that has felt the need to ‘move on’, as it were, in an effort to keep abreast of the changing trends.

“I think the main thing that has changed is competition,” Michael Diacono begins when I ask him about his own three-decade experience in restaurants. “When I started out in Mellieha 33 years ago – I was 18 at the time – it was a completely different kettle of fish. There was just myself, and maybe two or three other restaurants in the area. When I closed the restaurant three weeks ago, it was a completely different scenario… Not only were there dozens of catering establishments in the Mellieha area by then… but other external factors also came into the equation.

“There may have been internal factors as well. I myself might have got a bit stale after so long in the same environment. I felt it was time to change. But there were other issues affecting the restaurant sector in the north. The journey itself is one example; that was affecting people’s choice of restaurant. Today there are infinitely more places to go to… and they’re more spread out, too. People are no longer as willing to drive all the way to Mellieha, when there are options closer by. Then, there is the traffic and parking situation…”

Giuseppi’s was on Mellieha’s main road, which now caters for infinitely more traffic than when the restaurant first opened in the early 1980s. “It’s become a nightmare, to be honest. Pure mayhem. The location itself might be ideal on paper – on the main road of a tourist area – but in practice it just wasn’t working anymore.”

Leaving aside the circumstances of that one particular restaurant, it is safe to say the industry has changed in other ways too. Over the last few years there has been a veritable explosion in foreigners – mostly Italian – coming to Malta to open restaurants. How has this affected the local market?

“It has had a direct effect for the obvious reason that there’s more variety. But there’s also the mentality that, if a chef or restaurateur is Italian, then the food must be good. And Maltese flock to these places. I’m not saying they’re not good… some are very good, and I go to them myself. But the truth is that some are not very good at all. On the whole, local restaurants serve much better food than some of these pseudo Italian chefs. This doesn’t mean we should have a monopoly, of course. But the proliferation of new restaurants has certainly had an effect….”

One of the less immediate impacts takes the form of a small culinary culture clash. Though Maltese and Italian cuisines are closely related, our traditional approach to eating out can be quite different. Since setting up shop here, Italian chefs have discovered that Maltese customers expect considerably larger portions than they are used to preparing back home. Even the method of ordering food differs between our two countries: in Italy, condiments usually have to be ordered separately, at a cost.

“The restaurant culture is very different in Italy. If you’re unaware of the differences, you might end up with just a piece of fish or meat on a plate, and nothing to go with it. But this is something that is slowly changing. Even we, at Giuseppi’s, have started serving our side dishes as extras: one reason is to cut down on waste. So much food is wasted. Sometimes we get entire portions untouched. It all has to be thrown away. But when people order side dishes separately, they would automatically be more conscious both of what they’re ordering, and how much they are spending. And more importantly, there is a lot less wastage…”

How have local clients taken to these changes? And more to the point – have clients’ demands or expectations changed in other ways, owing to exposure to foreign restaurants?

“Completely, yes. People’s tastes have changed. When I started out, it was mostly simple home cooking. There were some sophisticated restaurants at the time: the ‘grand restaurants’ of Malta, such as the Phoenicia or the Arches, which served classic French food. But on the whole, things were plainer. Today, people’s idea of a meal out is often completely different. From our end, this means a lot more thought has to be put into what we do: what we serve, how we cook it, and where we source it from. We think a lot about sustainability, for instance. It’s impossible to be 100% sustainable in everything, but the concept is coming in. We do try and use different ingredients that are sustainable… especially with regard to fish.”

In some cases, restaurants respond to a perceived demand; but in others, there is active pressure from third parties. The issue of sourcing fish, for instance, is the subject of a campaign by the NGO ‘Fish4Tomorroow’… evidence of a growing awareness of environmental responsibility.

“We’ve done one night at Rubino, serving what you might call lesser known fish dishes… what people would normally consider ‘cheaper’ fish. The response was very positive. And it was fun for us, too. We got to use ingredients that we never thought about using before. People came and saw ‘vopi’ [bogue] on the menu: how often do you see that? And it worked: it’s a wonderful dish, fun to prepare… and we don’t have to charge a lot for it.”

Meanwhile the exposure to the foreign food culture arguably goes beyond an explosion of Italian restaurants. We have also seen a proliferation of ethnic food outlets – Asian supermarkets, convenience stores selling Serbian, Turkish or Indian ingredients… and while most cater for local expat communities, their wares are increasingly sought after by Maltese shoppers: both for restaurants and home cooking.

Does this influence the way a local restaurant approaches its menu?

“Definitely. The demographics of Malta have changed a lot recently, and that’s a good thing as far as food culture is concerned. For us, it has opened a whole new dimension. Today you can find ingredients locally that we wouldn’t have dreamed of even five or 10 years ago. It has given us more scope to create and to blend. I wouldn’t say my own style has changed as a result: I’m still a Mediterranean chef, my focus is still Mediterranean food – that is what I know, and what I love. But we do introduce a lot of new ingredients and styles…”

In a sense, this implies the rediscovery – possibly even reinvention – of traditional Maltese dishes, to furnish a growing niche of local specialty restaurants. It also brings us to a small paradox.

Today, restaurants specialising in local cuisine may well be flourishing. But it wasn’t always that way. In the past, Malta has always had at best a love-hate relationship with its own traditional cooking. With a few notable exceptions – Rubino’s in Valletta springs to mind, as do the several bars serving fried rabbit in various parts of the island – Maltese restaurants were few and far between until fairly recently.

The proliferation of Maltese cuisine, as a restaurant trend, has therefore done more than just reassert our collective nannas’ home-cooking recipes, and restored them to their former glory. It has also prompted a debate (mostly among chefs and restaurateurs) as to what actually constitutes the ‘definitive’ version of Maltese food.

Diacono - who is also Gourmet Today’s resident chef - has his own views on the authenticity of much of what passes for local cuisine. “At the end of the day, ours is a very limited and poor kitchen. Maltese food is good, but there isn’t the variety you’ll find with other national cuisines. This is to be expected… after all, we are what we are: a very small island. We can’t expect to have the equivalent of a French or Italian kitchen. Ours is a very poor kitchen… punto e basta. But nonetheless there are things that we do that are local. There are staple dishes, which we sometimes try and amend in an effort to better the dish. We also try to revive dishes that people don’t really eat any more: like offal, for instance. Brain, liver… and tongue, which is extremely popular. Some people come just for that, because it’s too much of a hassle to cook at home…”

It remains debatable even whether such things as ‘frittati tal-mohh’ can claim to be ‘traditional’. Michael Diacono argues that we should distinguish between what we consider ‘Maltese food’ today, and what Maltese people actually ate in the past.

“I am convinced that 200, 300 years ago, people didn’t eat ‘bragioli’ or tongue. They couldn’t afford to… the most they’d hope for is a bit of bread, onions and maybe a tomato if they were lucky. So most people have a misconception about what Maltese people ate, and how they cooked it. These things evolved with time, and most Maltese dishes are either Sicilian or Italian in origin. There is a bit of North African influence too. In this sense we were lucky. In the last few centuries Malta was a hot-pot of different cultures, and they all left a mark. It was a bit unfortunate, however, that we spent 200 years under British rule. That affected things a lot…”

The British effect has been more or less ubiquitous in our food culture. Not only has it limited the fare on offer, but even the finer details of restaurant service have clearly been influenced. In a Maltese restaurant (whatever the theme), bread is traditionally served with butter… though more restaurants today are reverting to the more local practice of providing olive oil instead.

“I know of one story, but I can’t vouch for how true it is. ‘Rucola’, or ‘rocket’ – what we call ‘insalata’ in Maltese – used to be widely eaten as a salad here… but the British never developed a taste for it, and it was phased off the menu. Today, it has a made a comeback; and as we all know, Maltese rocket is stunningly good…”

In other cases, dishes changed upon importation to Malta according to the availability of ingredients, or simply differences in the local palate.

“Take ‘ross fil-forn’ [baked rice], for instance... unfortunately it became a habit to make it with corned beef. We don’t do that anymore – we threw tinned meat out of the window a long time ago – but people still use these ingredients in home cooking. It’s a throwback to the war.”

All the same, there is something to be said for good old-fashioned food the way our nannas used to make it. Some people prefer their baked rice with corned beef… just like a certain ‘friend’ of mine (no names mentioned) is still partial to the occasional bowl of Maltova with Bovril, especially in winter…

“Yes: I call it ‘comfort food’. I confess that I, too, occasionally eat things like ‘pastina’, because the taste brings back a certain nostalgia for the old days.”

So can we expect ‘Maltova with Bovril’ on Giuseppi’s menu? You never know, it might be a hit…

“No,” he answers with a smile. “Not at all. But we do experiment in that sense. Either we will try and find the origin of a dish, or upgrade it to something more contemporary…”

Lastly, one advantage of having a rather recent (and mostly imported) culinary culture is that no one can claim to possess the ‘definitive recipe’ of any particular Maltese speciality.

“No, I don’t think anyone can. And many staple dishes have changed over the years. Bragioli, for instance… most people would say a bragiola is a strip of meat filled with bread, bacon and hard-boiled eggs. For many people, however, the filling has now evolved into minced meat. Personally I try as a rule to go back to the older, more traditional recipes. But it’s not the only way to do things...”