It’s one of our only truly national products… so the ‘ġbejna’ has to go

Not to get all mushy about what is, at the end of the day, ‘just a small piece of cheese’; but I do think the Maltese ġbejna deserves a somewhat more dignified fate than that

Honestly, though. We really are our own worst enemies, aren’t we?

At times, I almost get the impression that there is some kind of deliberate strategy going on here. It seems we are taking every conceivable opportunity to obliterate as much of Malta’s cultural heritage as can possibly can: to such an extent that it can no longer be argued away as ‘mere coincidence’.

It is, I am sorry to say, beginning to look like a carefully-planned, cunningly-executed, all-out Annihilation Mission from Hell; and its latest casualty is none other than the most typically Maltese (or should I say Gozitan) product of them all.

The ‘ġbejna’.

That is to say: one of the very, very few authentic culinary delicacies we can we truly call our own… and which, as we all know, goes especially well with a variety of other, mostly homegrown dishes: like ‘Kusksu bil-Ful’, ‘Soppa Tal-Armla’… or (my own preferred consumption method) just wolfed down fresh with olive oil, salt, and the equally indigenous Maltese ‘ftira’…

However you choose to consume them, though: ‘ġbejniet’ are so central, to any self-respecting local cook-book, that they have now become a necessary ingredient in one of Malta’s more recent culinary innovations, too.

The ‘Pizza Maltija’: where the humble Gozitan cheeselet takes pride of place. alongside olives, capers, Zalzett Malti, and (unfortunately for me, as I simply can’t stand them) sundried tomatoes…

…and, um, that’s about it, really. (Unless you count ‘hard-boiled eggs’, of course; because apparently – and I heard this from an accomplished Italian pizzaiolo, please note - the idea of ‘eggs on pizza’ is a bit like ‘pineapple’ in its Mexican context. Only in Malta, it seems, do we find it appetizing….)

But aside from these, and other local peculiarities that can’t really be described as ‘national dishes’ (‘timpana’, for instance, is just a local version of the Italian ‘timballo’)… there are undeniably certain products and ingredients that do resonate deeply with the national psyche.

And they’re not defined merely by their provenance, ingredients, and/or specific preparation method; but also by how neatly they slot into the much wider tableau of this ineffable thing we call ‘national culture’.

Admittedly, ‘ġbejna’ may not be quite as forceful, as an instant by-word for ‘Maltese-ness’, as that other culinary delicacy of ours: the all-powerful ‘Pastizz’.

But it certainly comes close. Heck, we even use the word as an insult sometimes – as Marlene Farrugia once famously did in Parliament.  That fact, on its own, attests to the profound link that exists between that particular little food item, and our most archetypal notions of who we even are.

(To put that another way: you might call someone a ‘ġbejna’, if the occasion arises…. but you’re not exactly going to call that someone a ‘Camembert’, are you now?)

Even without its undisputed culinary contribution, then, the unassuming little ‘ġbejna’ is a proud ambassador of Malta’s overall cultural product. And so, just like all the others… it clearly has to go.

Following on from the examples of the Planning Authority, the Environment and Resources Authority, Infrastructure Malta, etc… once again, it fell to the State industry regulator – in this case, the Malta Competition and Consumer Affairs Authority (MCCAA) - to deliver its final death sentence.

The MCCAA has in fact just ruled against an application for the ‘traditional Maltese ġbejna’ to be given its own EU quality food label: i.e., the equivalent of a ‘DOC’ system, of the same kind that distinguishes, say, authentic French Champagne, from any old bottle of cheap sparkling plonk (produced anywhere in the world, except the Champagne region of France)….

In this case, however, the application had more to do with the preparation method, than with the specific provenance (to be honest, I myself have no idea whether the ‘ġbejna’ actually originated in Gozo; or whether Gozitan cheese-makers are simply better at making it than anyone else).

I do, however, know enough to distinguish the particular taste of the two varieties of ‘ġbejniet’ available on the market – fresh, or dried and peppered – and it boils down to a particular, indescribable ‘tang’ you experience in your upper palate, when consuming the genuine article.

That’s an indication that it was made (as all ‘real’ ġbejniet are supposed to be made) from sheep’s milk: which is about as mandatory for ġbejniet-production, as goat’s milk is for making ‘Chauvre’.

That, at any rate, was the argument brought forward by a conglomerate of sheep-herders when presenting their application. And I think we can all more or less figure out what else they might have been driving at, too.

There are, after all, other products on the market, which also pass themselves off as ‘typical Maltese ġbejniet’: even though they are actually the product of cow’s milk (with the result that – while by no means ‘bad’, as cheeselets go – they lack that distinctive, authentic ‘je-ma-naf-xiex’ that defines the authentic variety).

But this brings me to the truly astonishing part of the MCCAA’s decision. I could almost understand, had they reasoned that the sheep herders were actually being somewhat fussy in their own (entirely arbitrary) definition of a ‘ġbejna’… and that, for instance, the Benna products should qualify as ‘authentic’, too.

Not that I agree with that interpretation, myself; but at least, it does reflect a concern with the MCCAA’s two core missions: i.e., to safeguard consumers against market fraud; and to protect local artisans from unfair (or downright dishonest) competition.

The real problem with the MCCAA’s decision, however, it that it simply disregarded any of those issues; and instead, was taken on purely linguistic grounds.

According to the news report: “The authority said that following public consultation, it had decided that the word ġbejna had come to be used across the board to refer to cheeselets and not specifically those made using traditional ġbejna techniques…”

Huh? What? Did I even understand that correctly?

I hope not, because that statement is hopelessly flawed from at least two angles: the first being that, quite simply, it isn’t even true.

It is actually the other way round: the word itself tells us that ‘ġbejna’ is really just a diminutive for ‘ġobon’… the generic term for cheese of any kind.

In time, however, the meaning narrowed down to only one specific type of cheeselet, made in only one particular kind of way. And in all my years living in this country – and with the sole exception of its occasional use as an insult - I have never heard anyone at all, under any circumstances whatsoever, utter that word in reference to anything but the traditional Maltese/Gozitan delicacy we all know and love so much.

And that’s just as well, because otherwise – going, once again, on the MCCAA’s logic – literally any cheesemaker, anywhere in the world, could suddenly flood the Maltese market with all sorts of bite-sized cheese-products… all neatly labelled as ‘Traditional Maltese Gbejniet’.

Those little Ramek triangles you buy in a round packet? Or those Baby Edams, sold in casings of red wax? Or how about those little golden packets of Dutch Blue Cheese (please note: ‘Dutch Blue Cheese’… NOT ‘Stilton’)?

Well, they could suddenly all call themselves ‘ġbejniet’, too. And linguistically, they’d probably even be correct (It is, ultimately, what the word originally meant: ‘any old small piece of cheese’, remember?).

But this is precisely why the decision should have been based on the twin principles of consumer protection, and fair competition…. and certainly NOT on the basis of semantics, etymology, or any other branch of linguistics you care to name.

That brings us squarely to the second problem. Sorry, but that was actually the whole point of the sheep-herders’ entire argument, right there… to protect their own product from unfair competition.

And granted, they have their own, rather obvious vested interests in the matter; but – and this is the part the authority seems to be overlooking - so do we, as the end-consumers of their products.

It is, quite frankly, very far from the consumer’s interest, for the quality of a (highly-prized) national delicacy to be slowly ‘diluted’, over time, thanks to the proliferation of copy-cat products on the market.

Meanwhile, just to illustrate how utterly bizarre the MCCAA’s reasoning truly is: applied to the ‘Champagne’ model, it would have resulted in no protection whatsoever for authentic French Champagne.

No recognition of its own idiosyncratic characteristics; or of its unique place at the pinnacle of the international wine market… simply because the word itself has become an internationally-recognised term for ‘sparkling wine’ in general (just like ‘Hoover’ is still widely used to refer to any old vacuum cleaner, etc.)

Excuse me, but that is precisely why French Champagne – and its millions of consumers, the world over - needed both the protection and recognition in the first place. And guess what? It works exactly the same for ġbejniet, to: or any other local product, which is clearly the handiwork of a genuine, regional culture.

Luckily for wine-makers in the Champagne region, however, the French food authorities at least understood what their job actually was. As a result, no one can now produce or distribute any sparkling wine labelled as ‘Champagne’… unless it really is the thing itself.

Well, the MCCA’s decision simply removes that possibility for the Maltese ġbejna altogether: condemning, in the process, one of our only truly indigenous products to eventual oblivion… until that indescribable ‘tang’, that we once associated with eating a fresh, authentic ‘ġbejna’, will one day fade into just another distant memory from our childhood (alongside the vanished countryside, and the lost urban townscapes, and so much more).

Not to get all mushy about what is, at the end of the day, ‘just a small piece of cheese’; but I do think the Maltese ġbejna deserves a somewhat more dignified fate than that.