Maltese food is a tasty mixture of many different influences coming from various countries. This is because throughout the centuries, the island of Malta was colonised by a number of cultures and civilisations. The Phoenicians, the Normans, the Romans, the Arabs, the Aragonese, the French, the Italians and the British, all at some point or other, passed through our islands, which is why perhaps, our cuisine is such a unique blend of ingredients and flavours.
This fact is reflected perfectly in our large number of traditional Maltese sweets, many of which are closely tied to the Catholic calendar, since certain sweets or pastries (though not all) are mostly baked and eaten during particular times of the liturgical year.
During the month of February for example, Carnival brings with it the prinjolata, which is basically a large cake in the shape of a little mound, cut into slices. This pine-nut cake is covered with almonds and candied peels. Maltese also revel in the eating of perlini, small coloured pellet-like hard sweets made of almonds and covered with an icing coating in pale colours.
Around mid-March and Saint Joseph’s feast day, the sfineġ ta’ San Ġużepp appear. These ricotta-filled pastries are topped with powdered sugar and nuts, and are actually a variation of the Sicilian pastries called zeppole. Lent introduces kwarezimal, a brown oblong concoction made out of almonds, honey, cocoa, crushed nuts, lemon and orange peel, as well as carob-sweets or karamelli tal-ħarrub.
Easter is a joyous time. After the ponderous days of Lent, during which many of the Christian faithful refrain from eating such tasty foodstuffs as sweets, as well as meat on Wednesdays and/or Fridays, Easter comes along as a blessing, whereby everyone is encouraged to loosen their belts and tuck in. This is the perfect attitude needed when one encounters the famous Maltese figolla. Made up of two large biscuits held together with almond paste, covered in coloured icing sugar and decorated with chocolate or chocolate eggs, these large pastries are usually baked in various shapes denoting fertility and luck, ranging from rabbits, to hearts, fish, bows and even dolls or cars. This is because it is tradition for parents and other family members to gift the children with figolli during Easter time, and therefore the shapes also reflect items which would interest children.
In the hot months of summer, the Maltese celebrate a huge number of Parish festas, during which a number of traditional foodstuffs and sweets are also consumed. Qubbajt, or nougat, is to be found all over Malta and Gozo at this time, and is usually bought from small stalls which pepper open-air festas and other summer events. The end of October and beginning of November also brings forth what are known as għadam tal-mejtin or ‘dead men’s bones’, which are basically almond fingers topped with icing sugar. Later on in the year, during Christmas, it is traditional to serve guests and family qagħaq tal-għasel, that is, honey rings, which are sweet pastry rings filled with a treacle mixture.
Apart from these seasonal Maltese sweets there, of course, many others. One could for example mention the very popular imqaret, which are available all year round, and which are date-filled pastries fried in oil. Remember that they are tastiest when eaten hot! Kannoli, another pastry inspired by our Sicilian neighbours, are another Maltese favourite, and can be found with a ricotta, white cream, or even chocolate filling.
The Maltese like to eat – that is a fact. One cannot visit Malta without having a taste of its delicious cuisine, so try not to miss out and taste at least one of these traditional sweets whenever you have the opportunity!