The foundation stone of Valletta, capital of Malta, was laid by Jean de Valette, Grand Master of the Order of St John (Knights Hospitaller), on this date in 1566. The building of a city on the Sciberras Peninsula had been proposed by the Order of Saint John as early as 1524. Back then, the only building on the peninsula was a small watchtower dedicated to Erasmus of Formia (Saint Elmo http://www.bookofdaystales.com/san-telmo/ ), which had been built in 1488. In 1552, the watchtower was demolished and the larger Fort Saint Elmo was built in its place. In the Great Siege of 1565, Fort Saint Elmo fell to the Ottomans, but the Order eventually won the siege with the help of Sicilian reinforcements. The victorious Grand Master, Jean de Valette, immediately set out to build a new fortified city on the Sciberras Peninsula to fortify the Order’s position in Malta and bind the Knights to the island. The city took his name and was called La Valletta.
De Valette asked European kings and princes for help, and he received a great deal of assistance, due to the increased fame of the Order after their victory in the Great Siege. Pope Pius V sent his military architect, Francesco Laparelli, to design the new city, while Philip II of Spain sent substantial funds. The first stone that de Valette laid was later incorporated into Our Lady of Victories Church.
In Dell’Istoria della Sacra Religione et Illustrissima Militia di San Giovanni Gierosolimitano (The History of the Sacred Religion and Illustrious Militia of St John of Jerusalem), written between 1594 and 1602, Giacomo Bosio writes that when the cornerstone of Valletta was placed, a group of Maltese elders said: “Iegi zimen en fel wardia col sceber raba iesue uquie” (Which in modern Maltese reads, “Jiġi żmien li fil-Wardija [l-Għolja Sciberras] kull xiber raba’ jiswa uqija”, and in English, “There will come a time when every piece of land on Sciberras Hill will be worth its weight in gold”).
De Valette died from a stroke on 21st August 1568 at age 74 and never saw the completion of his city. He was originally interred in the church of Our Lady of the Victories, is now in St. John’s Co-Cathedral among the tombs of other Grand Masters of the Knights of Malta.
Francesco Laparelli was the city’s principal designer and his plan departed from medieval Maltese architecture, which exhibited irregular winding streets and alleys. He designed the new city on a rectangular grid plan, and without any collacchio (an area restricted for important buildings). The streets were designed to be wide and straight, beginning centrally from the City Gate and ending at Fort Saint Elmo (which was rebuilt) overlooking the Mediterranean. Certain bastions were built 47 meters (154 ft) tall. His assistant was the Maltese architect Girolamo Cassar, who later oversaw the construction of the city himself after Laparelli’s death in 1570.
The city of Valletta was mostly complete by the early 1570s, and it became the capital on 18th March 1571 when Grand Master Pierre de Monte moved from his seat at Fort St Angelo in Birgu to the Grandmaster’s Palace in Valletta. Seven Auberges (meeting halls) were built for the Order’s Langues (divisions), and these were complete by the 1580s. An eighth Auberge, Auberge de Bavière, was later added in the 18th century.
Given that this is the season of Lent, a Maltese Lenten dish is appropriate, and kwareżimal fits the bill. The word ‘kwareżimal’ is derived from the Latin word ‘quaresima’ referring to the 40 days of Lent, and the ingredients of this sweet snack reflect the needs of fasting – specifically no use of eggs or fats. Before the recipe I’ll give you a video on its making, partly to give the idea, but mostly to let you hear the Maltese language. Maltese is a Semitic language, but has strayed a long way from Arabic under numerous influences. Loan words from English and Italian are obvious. Some linguists claim that as much as 20% of Maltese vocabulary is English and the words retain their English pronunciation. You’ll see if you watch the video.
200 gm ground almonds
200 gm plain flour, sifted
150 gm sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp orange blossom water
grated zest of one lemon, one orange and one mandarin
4 tbsp thyme honey
crushed pistachios and almonds and grated orange zest to decorate.
Preheat the oven to 180°C.
Combine all the ingredients and add just enough water to make a stiff dough. Knead gently for several minutes on a floured surface and then roll into a flattened log (see the video). Cut thick slices of the log and lay them on a baking tray lined with baker’s parchment. Bake for 10 minutes.
Remove from the oven and while they are still warm, brush them with thyme honey and then sprinkle them with the crushed pistachios and almonds, and the grated zest.