Malta achieved its independence on this date in 1964 (Independence Day) after intense negotiations with the United Kingdom, led by Maltese Prime Minister George Borġ Olivier. Under its 1964 constitution, Malta initially retained Elizabeth II as Queen of Malta and, thus, nominal head of state, with a Governor-General exercising executive authority on her behalf. In 1971, the Malta Labour Party led by Dom Mintoff won the General Elections, resulting in Malta declaring itself a republic on 13 December 1974 (Republic Day) within the Commonwealth, with a president as head of state.
I’m going to give you a slightly lengthy (sorry) historical overview of Malta because the island nation is exemplary of the histories of so many nations of Europe which for thousands of years have been pushed and pulled in numerous directions as one invader after another took over, before settling into self rule. My point is, of course, that each wave of invaders left its mark on local cuisine which developed its own style out of this crucible of influences. You can skip to the recipe on rabbit in red wine if you like. There you will glimpse why the dish is important to Malta’s self identity.
Pottery found by archaeologists at Skorba resembles that found in Italy, and suggests that the Maltese islands were first settled around 5200 BCE by Neolithic hunters and farmers who had arrived from Sicily, (possibly the Sicani). The extinction of indigenous dwarf hippos and dwarf elephants has been linked to the earliest arrival of humans on Malta. Prehistoric farming settlements dating to Early Neolithic period were discovered in open areas and also in caves, such as Għar Dalam. The population on Malta grew cereals, raised domestic livestock and, in common with other ancient Mediterranean cultures, worshiped a fertility figure represented in Maltese prehistoric artifacts exhibiting the proportions seen in similar statuettes, such as the Venus of Willendorf. The culture apparently disappeared from the Maltese Islands around 2500 BCE. Archaeologists speculate that the temple builders fell victim to famine or disease.
After 2500 BCE, the Maltese Islands were uninhabited for several decades until the arrival of a new influx of Bronze Age immigrants, a culture that cremated its dead and introduced megalithic structures, or dolmens, rather smaller than those of the Sicani, to Malta. In most cases there are small chambers here, with the cover made of a large slab placed on upright stones. They are claimed to belong to a population certainly different from that which built the previous megalithic temples. It is presumed the population arrived from Sicily because of the similarity of Maltese dolmens to some small constructions found in other islands of the Mediterranean sea.
Phoenician traders, who used the islands as a stop on their trade routes from the eastern Mediterranean to Cornwall, joined the local population on the island. The Phoenicians inhabited the area now known as Mdina, and its surrounding town of Rabat, which they called Maleth. After the fall of Phoenicia in 332 BCE, the area came under the control of Carthage, a former Phoenician colony. During this time the people on Malta mainly cultivated olives and carobs, and produced textiles.
During the First Punic War of 264 BCE, tensions led the Maltese people to rebel against Carthage and turn control of their garrison over to the Roman consul Sempronius. Malta remained loyal to Rome during the Second Punic War and the Romans rewarded it with the title Foederata Civitas, a designation that meant it was exempt from paying tribute or following the rule of Roman law, although at this time it fell within the jurisdiction of the province of Sicily. Punic influence, however, remained vibrant on the islands with the famous Cippi of Melqart, pivotal in deciphering the Punic language, dedicated in the 2nd century BCE.
By 117 CE, the Maltese Islands were a thriving part of the Roman Empire, being promoted to the status of municipium under Hadrian. When the Roman Empire split into Eastern and Western divisions in the 4th century, Malta fell under the control of the Greek speaking Byzantine Empire from 395 to 870, being ruled from Constantinople. Although Malta was under Byzantine rule for four centuries, not much is known from this period. There is evidence that Germanic tribes, including the Goths and Vandals, briefly took control of the islands before the Byzantines launched a counterattack and retook Malta.
Malta became involved in the Muslim–Byzantine Wars, and the conquest of Malta is closely linked with that of Sicily that began in 827 after admiral Euphemius’ betrayal of his fellow Byzantines, requesting that the Aghlabid dynasty invade the island. The Muslim chronicler and geographer al-Himyari recounts that in 870, following a violent struggle against the occupying Byzantines, the Muslim invaders, first led by Halaf al-Hadim, and later by Sawada ibn Muhammad, looted and pillaged the island, destroying the most important buildings, and leaving it practically uninhabited until it was recolonized by the Muslims from Sicily in 1048–1049. It is uncertain whether this new settlement took place as a consequence of demographic expansion in Sicily, as a result of a higher standard of living in Sicily (in which case the recolonization may have taken place a few decades earlier), or as a result of civil war which broke out among Muslim rulers of Sicily in 1038. The Muslims introduced new irrigation, some fruits and cotton – and the Siculo-Arabic language was adopted on the island from Sicily which would eventually evolve into the Maltese language, the only Semitic language of Europe (heavily influenced by Italian dialects), and the only Semitic language to use the Roman alphabet. The Christians on the island were allowed freedom of religion; they had to pay jizya, a tax for non-Muslims, but were exempt from the tax that Muslims had to pay (zakaat).
The Normans captured Malta in 1091, as part of their conquest of Sicily. The Norman leader, Roger I of Sicily, was welcomed by the native Christians. The notion that Count Roger I reportedly tore off a portion of his checkered red-and-white banner and presented it to the Maltese – forming the basis of the present-day Maltese flag in gratitude for having fought on his behalf – is founded in legend. The Norman period was productive; Malta became part of the newly formed Kingdom of Sicily which also covered the island of Sicily and the southern half of the Italian Peninsula. The Catholic Church was reinstated as the state religion with Malta under the See of Palermo, and some Norman architecture sprung up around Malta especially in its ancient capital Mdina. Tancred of Sicily, the last Norman monarch, made Malta a feudal lordship or fief within the kingdom and installed a count of Malta. As the islands were much desired due to their strategic importance, it was during this time the men of Malta were militarized to fend off capture attempts; the early counts were skilled Genoese corsairs.
The kingdom passed on to the House of Hohenstaufen from 1194 until 1266. During this period, when Frederick II of Hohenstaufen began to reorganize his Sicilian kingdom, Western culture and religion began to exert their influence more intensely. Malta formed part of the Holy Roman Empire for 72 years. Malta was declared a county and a marquisate, but its trade was totally ruined. For a long time it remained solely a fortified garrison. A mass expulsion of Arabs occurred in 1224 and the entire Christian male population of Celano in Abruzzo was deported to Malta in the same year. In 1249 Frederick II decreed that all remaining Muslims (who were not Moors) be expelled from Malta or forced to convert.
For a brief period the kingdom passed to the Capetian House of Anjou, but high taxes made the dynasty unpopular in Malta, due in part to Charles of Anjou’s war against the Republic of Genoa, and the island of Gozo was sacked in 1275. A large revolt on Sicily known as the Sicilian Vespers followed these attacks, that saw the Peninsula separating into the Kingdom of Naples.
Malta was ruled by a Spanish Aragonese dynasty from 1282 to 1409. Relatives of the kings of Aragon ruled the island until 1409, when it formally passed to the Crown of Aragon. Early on in the Aragonese ascendancy, the sons of the monarchy received the title, “Count of Malta”. During this time much of the local nobility was created. However, by 1397 the bearing of the title “Count of Malta” reverted to a feudal basis with two families fighting over the distinction, which caused some conflict and led the king to abolish the title. Dispute over the title returned when the title was reinstated a few years later and the Maltese, led by the local nobility, rose up against Count Gonsalvo Monroy. Although they opposed the count, the Maltese voiced their loyalty to the Sicilian Crown, which so impressed Alfonso V of Aragon that he did not punish the people for their rebellion. Instead, he promised never to grant the title to a third party, and incorporated it back into the crown. The city of Mdina was given the title of Città Notabile as a result of this sequence of events.
In 1530, Emperor Charles V of Spain gave the islands to the Knights Hospitaller under the leadership of Philippe de Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, Grand Master of the Order, in perpetual lease for which they had to pay an annual Tribute of one Maltese Falcon. These knights, a military religious order now known as the Knights of Malta, had been driven out of Rhodes by the Ottoman Empire in 1522.
The Knights, led by Jean Parisot de Valette, Grand Master of the Order, withstood a siege by the Ottomans in 1565. The Knights, with the help of Spanish and Maltese forces, were victorious and repelled the attack. Speaking of the battle Voltaire said, “Nothing is better known than the siege of Malta.” After the siege they decided to increase Malta’s fortifications, particularly in the inner-harbor area, where the new city of Valletta, named in honor of Valette, was built. They also established watchtowers along the coasts – the Wignacourt, Lascaris and De Redin towers – named after the Grand Masters who ordered the work. The Knights’ presence on the island saw the completion of many architectural and cultural projects, including the embellishment of Città Vittoriosa, the construction of new cities including Città Rohan and Città Hompesch and the introduction of new academic and social resources.
The Knights’ reign ended when Napoleon captured Malta on his way to Egypt during the French Revolutionary Wars in 1798. Over the years preceding Napoleon’s capture of the islands, the power of the Knights had declined and the Order had become unpopular. This was around the time when the universal values of freedom and liberty were promulgated by the French Revolution. People from both inside the Order and outside appealed to Napoleon to oust the Knights. Napoleon’s fleet arrived in 1798, en route to his conquest of Egypt. As a ruse Napoleon asked for safe harbor to resupply his ships, and then turned his guns against the Knightd once safely inside Valletta. Grand Master Hompesch capitulated, and Napoleon entered Malta.
During 12-18th June 1798, Napoleon resided at the Palazzo Parisio in Valletta. He reformed national administration with the creation of a Government Commission, twelve municipalities, a public finance administration, the abolition of all feudal rights and privileges, the abolition of slavery and the granting of freedom to all Turkish and Jewish slaves. On the judicial level, a family code was framed and twelve judges were nominated. Public education was organized along principles laid down by Napoleon himself, providing for primary and secondary education. He then sailed for Egypt leaving a substantial garrison in Malta.
The French forces left behind became unpopular with the Maltese, due particularly to the French forces’ hostility towards Catholicism and pillaging of local churches to fund Napoleon’s war efforts. French financial and religious policies so angered the Maltese that they rebelled, forcing the French to depart. Great Britain, along with the Kingdom of Naples and the Kingdom of Sicily, sent ammunition and aid to the Maltese and Britain also sent her navy, which blockaded the islands.
General Claude-Henri Belgrand de Vaubois surrendered his French forces in 1800. Maltese leaders presented the island to Sir Alexander Ball, asking that the island become a British Dominion. The Maltese people created a Declaration of Rights in which they agreed to come “under the protection and sovereignty of the King of the free people, His Majesty the King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland”. The Declaration also stated that “his Majesty has no right to cede these Islands to any power…if he chooses to withdraw his protection, and abandon his sovereignty, the right of electing another sovereign, or of the governing of these Islands, belongs to us, the inhabitants and aborigines alone, and without control.”
In 1814, as part of the Treaty of Paris, Malta officially became a part of the British Empire and was used as a shipping way-station and fleet headquarters. After the Suez Canal opened in 1869, Malta’s position halfway between the Strait of Gibraltar and Egypt proved to be its main asset and it was considered an important stop on the way to India. This was a vital trade route for the British and thus, the Maltese people took great advantage of the alliance aand several culinary and botanical products were introduced in Malta, including wheat (primarily for bread making) and pigs.
In the early 1930s the British Mediterranean Fleet, which was at that time the main contributor to commerce on the island, moved to Alexandria as an economic measure and to be out of range of Italian bombers.
During World War II, Malta played an important role owing to its proximity to Axis shipping lanes. The bravery of the Maltese people during the second Siege of Malta moved King George VI to award the George Cross to Malta on a collective basis (unique a the time) on 15 April 1942 “to bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history”. Some historians argue that the award caused Britain to incur disproportionate losses in defending Malta, as British credibility would have suffered if Malta surrendered, as British forces in Singapore had done. A depiction of the George Cross now appears in the upper hoist corner of the flag of Malta.
Post-war Malta saw increasing calls for independence which was granted, after considerable political turmoil in 1964.
Malta’s history and geography had a major influence on its cuisine. Having to import most of its foodstuffs, being positioned along important trade routes, and having to cater to the resident foreign powers who ruled the islands, opened Maltese cuisine to outside influences from very early on. Foreign dishes and tastes were absorbed, transformed and adapted. Italian (specifically Sicilian), Middle Eastern and Arabic foods exerted a strong influence. The presence in Malta of the Knights of St John and, more recently, the British brought elements from farther afield.
The Knights came from many European countries; particularly, France, Italy and Spain. They brought influences from these countries. Aljotta, for example, a fish broth with garlic, herbs, and tomatoes, is the Maltese adaptation of bouillabaisse. The Knights’ contacts and wealth brought also food from the New World; it has been suggested that Malta may have been one of the first countries in Europe (after Spain) where chocolate was first tasted.
The British military presence and, later, mass tourism from the U.K., introduced British food products, condiments and sauces such as English mustard, Bovril, HP Sauce and Worcestershire sauce which are still a subtle, but pervasive, presence in Maltese cooking. While the Maltese word “aljoli” is likely to be a loan word, the Maltese version of the sauce does not include any egg as in classic Italian aioli; instead it is based on herbs, olives, anchovies and olive oil. Similarly, while the Maltese word “taġen” is related to “tajine,” in Maltese the word refers exclusively to a metal frying pan.
There are a number of junctures in which development in Maltese cuisine related to issues of identity. The most significant example is the traditional Maltese stuffat tal-fenek (stewed rabbit), often identified as the national dish, which quite possibly started off as a form of symbolic resistance to the hunting restrictions imposed by the Knights of St John. The dish was to become popular after the lifting of restrictions in the late 18th century (and by which time the indigenous breed had multiplied and prices dropped) and the domestication of rabbits.
3 lb rabbit (including liver and kidneys), cut into serving portions (4 to 6)
2 onions, peeled and sliced
4 garlic cloves, peeled
3 large tomatoes, peeled and chopped
2 tsp tomato paste
4 potatoes, peeled and quartered
5 carrots, peeled and sliced
7 oz peas
2 bay leaves
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup red wine
Season the flour with salt and pepper. Dredge the rabbit portions in flour. Heat about a tablespoon of olive oil in a heavy pot over medium-high heat and sauté the rabbit pieces, a few at a time until lightly browned on all sides.
Add the onions, carrots, potatoes, garlic and tomatoes to the pot. Pour about half the wine over the ingredients and bring to a simmer. Add the bay leaves, stock to cover, and tomato paste. Add the liver, kidneys and peas and simmer, covered, for about one and a half hours or until the rabbit is tender. If the sauce starts to dry out, add more wine. The sauce should thicken as it reduces much like coq au vin.
It is common to start the meal with some of the rabbit sauce served over spaghetti as a first course. The rabbit with vegetables and more sauce is the second course.