On the Trail of Food in Valletta
Walking around the streets of Malta’s capital, one constantly comes across reminders of food, and the important role it played in the city’s history: the indoor market, which traces its origins to the Knights of St. John; the monument commemorating the victims of the Sette Giugno riots, which were primarily motivated by hunger and the exorbitant price of bread; the former Castellania, where Sir Temi Zammit discovered that unpasteurised milk was the source of undulant fever; and even place names, such as Old Bakery Street and Windmill Street. But others are perhaps much less obvious …
Although Malta always produced some grain, this was never enough to satisfy the demands of the population, and the island depended on importation from Sicily. It was vital to have abundant storage of grain at all times, due to the constant threat of sieges or plague outbreaks, when all imports were halted. This necessitated the provision of safe, long-term storage to protect this precious commodity from damage caused by insects, rodents, and mould.
In Valletta, the Knights of St. John opted for the use of underground silos - reservoirs hollowed out of the solid rock which were filled with grain, before being sealed off to stop water from getting in. A single silo could hold up to 80 tons of grain for as long as 3 or 4 years.
Although the most well-known granaries today are those in Floriana, which were built by the British in the 19th century, other granaries had already been built by the Knights themselves within the walls of Valletta. Many of them have since been obliterated due to development, but directly in front of Fort St. Elmo, one can still see a number of circular stones, which are actually the lids of 39 surviving grain silos out of the 70 that were excavated here in the mid-17th century.
During the repaving of St. George’s Square a few years ago, workers discovered an old stone block with a circular hole in it. This is believed to be related to the centuries-old tradition of the kukkanja - a game that for many years was held on this same square during carnival festivities.
Based on a Neapolitan tradition, the kukkanja was brought to Malta by the Italian Grand Master Marc’Antonio Zondadari in 1721. It involved a greased pole, at the top of which foodstuffs would be tied. Competitors would attempt to climb to the top and claim these prizes, a feat that was both difficult and amusing to watch.
Contemporary descriptions explain how crowds used to assemble on St. George’s Square, and at a given signal, they would attack the hams, sausages, and even live animals dangling from the top. The annual event came to an end when the Knights left Malta, but the tradition was brought back to life in the 20th century and is still occasionally held in modern times.
Due to Malta’s reliance on importing most of its foodstuffs from abroad, the biggest threat to the island’s survival during World War Two was the Axis blockade intended to starve the defenders. As food shortages started to be experienced, rationing was introduced, and with time, the lack of proper nutrition started to cause serious health problems for the population, encouraging the spread of disease, and leading to an increased death rate among the vulnerable.
To control the situation, Victory Kitchens were opened all over Malta. Subscribers would give up a percentage of their rations, but in return, they received cooked food, consisting of the surrendered rations, together with unrationed items. People were entitled to one meal a day, and the food was very plain and repetitive. But despite frequent complaints about these things, people had no option but to use them, and the Victory Kitchens remained in operation until improved conditions led to their closure.
A few years ago, restoration works on a shop façade in Melita Street led to the discovery of a wartime sign indicating the location of a Victory Kitchen. It has since been restored and preserved as yet another reminder of a time when food played a huge role in the history of Valletta.
This blog was also featured in the Air Malta Bizzilla Magazine.