A patriot in the kitchen | Pippa Mattei

Pippa Mattei has always been an advocate of Maltese cuisine. Both her books – 25 Years in a Maltese Kitchen and Pippa’s Festa – celebrate the uniqueness of Maltese cooking, which does not receive the attention it deserves. 

As we sit down, Mattei immediately launches into her latest dish, a ribollito made with fresh cavallo nero and other vegetables from a friend’s garden. Fresh ingredients are key to cooking tasty Maltese meals.

While filming a nationwide programme in Washington, Mattei was asked what makes Maltese cuisine special, to which she answered that is definitely in the freshness of the ingredients used. “Fish and vegetables are caught or picked at 5am and by the evening they are in your plate. The size of our island means that food does not have to travel miles and miles before it gets onto our plates, allowing us to enjoy the ingredients at their freshest.”

Mattei believes in purchasing local ingredients over foreign ones at every possible opportunity. “We have beautiful Maltese lemons that are so full of flavour in comparison to the waxed imported ones you find at the supermarket. You couldn’t make a good Limoncello from the foreign lemons. They have to be Maltese.”

Farmers are becoming more creative and planting things that traditionally were not grown in Malta. A variety of fresh local herbs are now available in Malta: from sage to chives, coriander and dill. A freer market has also seen the importation of other food items that were previously neglected – Greek yoghurt, crème fraiche and buttermilk being some of the food items available.

A number of varieties of fruit and vegetables also have to be imported, owing to a less than ideal climate, when it comes to bananas, apples, pineapples and other exotic fruit.

“As a child I always remember wonderful smells coming from the kitchen as something always seemed to be simmering on the stove. Though I didn’t learn to cook anything until I married into the Mattei family, my grandfather and two of my aunts were great cooks who learned to cook from their Gozitan maids as their mothers did not really feature in the kitchen. When they showed an interest in food, the maids gladly passed on recipes that had been passed from generation to generation.” 

The frugal nature of traditionally Maltese dishes means that it is not so much the cut but the care that is important in their preparation. A traditional minestra takes a long time to prepare, as all the vegetables need to be cut up with care.    

 “Since my first book (25 Years in a Maltese Kitchen), there has been a revival of traditional Maltese cuisine. A number people have been publicising Maltese food through their own restaurants or through cookbooks. To mention but a few, Christopher of Ambrosia and Michael Diacono of Giuseppi’s help to promote local ingredients with traditional recipes, while Gloria Mizzi and Matty Cremona have published fantastic books on local recipes with local produce.”

The younger generation are also using the recipes of Mattei’s books and those of other Maltese books, reviving traditional cuisine, which was in danger of becoming extinct.

Local produce has come into the spotlight, with a much better appreciation for all things local. Ta’ Mena in Gozo offer a range of products that give a person a really good feel for local produce, from wines, to olive oils, salt and sun dried tomato paste.

“It is a shame that so few restaurants in Malta serve Maltese dishes that are made well. Maltese cuisine can be wonderful and it is inexpensive to prepare. However some are making an effort. I was at an up market establishment last week with some friends and found that they were offering Maltese specialties, much to the delight of my friends who all ordered traditional dishes that were done superbly. Maltese people enjoy the meals that remind them of their grandparents, while foreigners love to try the dishes that are typical to the islands.”

When making traditional recipes, Mattei’s advice is to use the freshest ingredients on the market and not to cut corners. If you’re making a dish with peas, then use fresh ones. It is easier to use a bag of frozen peas, but why not spend an evening shelling peas in front of the television, to use the following day.

Life is becoming faster paced all the time and not everyone has the luxury of spending hours in the kitchen to come up with a fancy three-course meal every day. Eating good food need not require hours of backbreaking work in the kitchen. Mattei says eating well is all about planning.

“I would recommend spending some time on a Sunday afternoon planning the meals you plan to eat during the week. Like that you can do the shopping for the entire week and then only go out to buy the essentials like bread and milk.

“Some ready made meals are quite good but you need to be selective when choosing them and unfortunately they can be quite expensive. There is a market for convenient meals that are freshly prepared locally. Though there are some places that do them, they are few and far between.

“There is never any excuse to resort to fast food. If you want to eat a burger then why not make your own using good quality meat and fresh ingredients? You can always make a large batch and freeze them for days when time is limited.”

The ability to cook is not something shared by all, however Mattei says that today, recipes have become so easy to follow that anyone can make a good meal if they follow a simple recipe.

“I once had a student who never cooked before and didn’t come from a culinary background. When he looked in the fridge all he ever found was an onion and a cobweb, however he turned out to be a fantastic cook, able to whip up a three-course meal from anything. Cooking is a lot like painting or sewing. You need to have some natural ability and then practice makes perfect.”

One person within a relationship is usually better at cooking than the other and the person with the aptitude should take on the role of cooking for the family whether it be the man or woman.

“In our family cooking is a family affair and often a combined effort. My husband, John, has been the best sous chef all of my married life and my children also take an active role in the kitchen. This year we made figolli as a family in the middle of the night as there just seemed to be no other time to do it. I made the biscuit and the filling, whilst my daughter Emma assembled them and my son Alex did the decorating.”