3 Snippets from Malta’s Food History
Walking around the streets of our capital city, one cannot help constantly coming across several reminders of food, almost around every corner. No, I am not talking about the large number of restaurants that are to be found in Valletta, but memories of earlier times - granaries, such as those found in the area of Fort St. Elmo; 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 a World War Two sign for a Victory Kitchen amongst many others.
Built by the Knights of St. John in the mid-16th century on the strategically located Mediterranean island of Malta, Valletta quickly became a very important and cosmopolitan harbour city and a perfect place through which foreign culinary practices and new exciting ingredients would have been able to enter the island. And, through the influence and strong links that the multi-national Knights enjoyed with overseas regions, some things which we might tend to associate with more recent times were able to come into Malta relatively earlier when compared to other parts of Europe.
One example of this is coffee, a drink with which Valletta has a very long connection. Although coffee really started to gain popularity in Europe around the mid-17th century, Malta’s connection to it seems to go back around a century earlier. In fact, some believe that Malta was the very first European country where coffee was introduced, most probably through Turkish slaves, who prepared their traditional beverage in the prisons where they were kept. A statement from a German traveller in the mid-1600s talks of this strange concoction of a powder resembling snuff tobacco, which the Turks mixed with water and sugar, and which they could sell to earn some extra money. Soon the Knights themselves became very fond of this drink and would visit the Bagno degli Schiavi (Slaves’ Prison) because this was where the best quality coffee could be found.
This theory is of course quite plausible considering that the Ottomans at this time had full control over the coffee trade, and later introduced it to the rest of Europe through Venice, with whom they enjoyed very strong trade relations, but this does not totally exclude other possible ways how this product could have found its way into Malta at such an early stage. Piracy cannot be excluded, as Maltese corsairs would have undoubtedly confiscated coffee grains, along with other cargo, during their continuous raids against Ottoman shipping, while it could also have first been offered to a Grand Master as a gift from some North African prince or bey, or it could have entered through other European merchants, most likely French, who traded with the Orient.
The Knights’ fondness for coffee soon led to its introduction in Maltese high society. Coffee started to be imported regularly, and its popularity was such that soon numerous coffee shops sprouted all around Valletta, making it easily available to people from all levels of society, and proving testament to the high demand for it. The Grand Master even had a waiter employed as part of his magisterial household at the palace, known as the Garzone del Caffè, whose sole job was to prepare and serve him coffee!
According to a 17th-century document found at the National Archives, for the perfect cup of coffee one needed coffee beans, a special coffee pot made of copper, and to know how to recite the Apostles’ Creed. Coffee, it was recommended, should be left to brew for as long as it took to recite this prayer. Like today, coffee was normally served at the end of a meal, together with the dessert, often a piece of cake or other pastry. Interestingly though, coffee was also believed to be a remedy for many ills. A 17th-century treatise about coffee, written in Malta by a certain Domenico Magri, claims that coffee was good for the lungs, the liver and the stomach amongst others, while, according to him, the Turks, who consumed copious amounts of this substance, never seemed to suffer from toothache, gout and other infirmities.
Malta was also among the pioneering countries to have introduced the drinking of chocolate in Europe. Originating in Mexico, cocoa beans were probably introduced into our island by the Spanish knights. In the mid-1600s, a certain Francesco Buonamico wrote the Trattato della Cioccolata, claiming that “our island can truthfully boast of having been a forerunner in the coffee and chocolate drinking crazes that swept across Europe in the 17th century”.
Born in Valletta, Francesco Buonamico was by profession a medical doctor, but as was the custom for intellectuals at the time, he also specialised in other fields too: he was a botanist, antiquarian, linguist, scientist, poet, writer, theologian and enlightened traveller - best described as a post-Renaissance genius. Buonamico wrote extensively and is best known for his travelogue, written over a decade that he spent visiting 69 cities all over Europe. It was while studying in France, at the age of just 19, that he wrote what is considered as one of the earliest treatises on chocolate.