'Food' and 'Death' are two words we would not usually think of together. But a quick look back at our history shows that the two were often connected.
Food has always been central to most cultural and religious events celebrated by communities around the world, but although one would normally associate it with joyous celebrations, it has also often been part of how any community deals with death. In Malta, it was no different.
Perhaps the earliest evidence of the use of food in funerary rites are the 'agape tables' found in Maltese catacombs. Carved out of solid rock, these features replicate the reclining couch and table commonly found in Roman dining rooms, and were used during the Parentalia - the Roman festival of the dead - when families commemorated their ancestors. The last day - the Feralia - would see food offerings, such as grain and bread soaked in wine, left next to family tombs.
The tables were also used for the refrigerium - a commemorative meal held on the day of burial, again on the ninth day after the funeral, and annually thereafter. By dining with the dead, the Romans believed they were honouring their ancestors.
A term often referenced in Maltese medieval manuscripts is that of ‘kuċċija’. One such document - someone’s last will - stated that it was the wish of the individual concerned that on the first night after his funeral "two tumoli of kuċċija would be given to the poor, as is customary”. Clearly, the ‘kuċċija’ was some kind of food that was distributed in churches following someone’s death, as suffrage for the deceased’s soul.
The Maltese 18th century historian Agius de Soldanis mentions it in one of his works, and refers to it as “wheat that had been boiled and blessed”. He claimed that up until the 16th century, it was customary for Maltese people to take to their church on the eve of All Souls’ Day, "cooked wheat, with raisins, nuts, and almonds ... and distribute it among those present", who would then eat it whilst praying for the souls of the deceased. By the time Agius de Soldanis wrote this, however, he claimed that this custom had already died out.
One of the most popular traditional Maltese food items is ‘bigilla’ - a dip made from mashed tic beans. What most people don’t realise is that ‘bigilla’ was once traditionally consumed at funerals, even if this connotation has been lost over time.
Indeed, beans have long been associated with death and the afterlife. In ancient Rome for example, priests of Jupiter could not touch beans, due to their association with death and decay. It was believed that beans could contain the souls of the dead, which is why, during the annual festival of Lemuria - when the spirits of the dead emerged from their graves - a night-time ritual was held which included throwing beans over one’s shoulder and reciting incantations as a way of exorcising their property.
In Malta, on the other hand, Agius de Soldanis wrote that “these cooked beans, or Beghilla, was distributed to the poor who accompanied the deceased to the Church”.
L-Ikla tal-Għid tal-Erwieħ
Recent years have also seen the reintroduction of thematic meals held on All Souls’ Day, in an effort to revive certain long-forgotten practices.
A typical menu would start with a glass of ‘Maħluta’, an alcoholic cocktail meant to symbolise the good and bad in life through its mixture of both sweet and bitter ingredients, while the alcoholic content represents the spirit of life.
The starter consists of ‘Minestra tal-Erwieħ’, a reminder of a tradition introduced by the Capuchin Friars, who would collect donations in the form of vegetables and other ingredients to make ‘minestra’, which was then served to the poor gathered for the occasion, as suffrage for the souls of the deceased.
Roast pork as the main course is a reminder of yet another lost tradition - ‘il - Ħanżira tal-Erwieħ’. In some villages, the parish priest used to obtain a piglet, which was then left to roam the streets for a year, being fed scraps by the villagers. On All Souls’ Day, the now-fattened pig was slaughtered and served to the poor, giving them the chance to taste meat for a change.
As for dessert, there really is only one option: ‘Għadam tal-Mejtin’ are traditional almond-filled pastries, shaped like bones and covered with white icing. One of the few traditions still alive today, they are still sold in local shops during the month of November.