Monday, November 28, 2022

Malta for Food-Lovers

Malta's  weather is a compelling reason to visit...even in late November

Malta was one of the last destinations on my bucket list.  As Malta has the warmest winter weather in Europe, I chose to recover from jet lag here for a week prior to flying to frosty Germany for the Wine-Knows’ Christmas Market tour.  I already feel at home on the island as its gastronomy (and architecture) reminds me of Sicily.   Maltese food, like Sicilian, has Arabesque influences but there are also nuances of France and Spain juxtaposed similarly to Sicily.  All of this makes sense when you examine the island’s history.

                                Dining al fresco for lunch is possible nearly year around

The island of Malta lies less than 60 miles from Sicily and roughly 175 miles from Tunisia.  Like much of the Mediterranean, Malta was first colonized by the Phoenicians who arrived 700 BC.   Sailing from what is now modern day Lebanon, the Phoenicians ruled Malta until 200 AD when the Romans sailed in and changed the balance of power.  A few centuries later the Moors (Arabs from northern Africa) appeared on Malta and ended up ruling the island for hundreds of years. In 1000 Malta became part of the large Kingdom of Sicily (which included much of southern Italy).  This was followed by a period of Spanish rule, but in 1530 Spain gave Malta to the Knights Templar, a Catholic military order charged with the care and defense of the Holy Land.

All of these colonizers left their marks on the culinary fabric of Malta with Sicily being the most dominant.  Sicilian influences are everywhere:

Maltese bakeries offer "kannoli" in all different sizes

~ Cannoli are synonymous with Sicily.  A tube shaped dessert, they are filled with ricotta, dried fruit and even chocolate.    

~ Pannetone, a dome-sized sweet bread popular especially during Sicily’s Christmas holidays, is in every store on Malta.  

~ Pasta in every size and shape appears on all menus. 


But, the Arab impact is also palpable:

                                  Pastizz is a Maltese national dish with roots in Arabic cooking 

          ~ One of the most popular foods on Malta is flaky pastizz.  Made from layers of phyllo pastry, it is filled typically with ricotta and curried peas.   Think of it as a savory baklava.  Pastizz is a national  dish available everywhere on the island…in pastizz shops, cafes, bars, restaurants and even sold by street vendors.

                               My ftira  was filled with tomatoes, capers, tuna & onions

          ~ There are many breads produced on Malta, but none more important than the ring-shaped ftira.  The name ftira is derived from an Arabic word meaning “unleavened bread.”  It’s so important to Maltese culture that it was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list recently.

          ~ Malta’s dishes are flavored with a treasure trove of spices brought by the Arabs, including cumin, paprika, curry and mint.

                     Platt Malti is a meze platter and tapas rolled into one yummy experience

          ~ Platt Malti isn’t a dish but a selection of small appetizers commonly known in the Middle East as meze.  This isn’t just a platter of food, but more of a social event and a key part of Maltese culture and cuisine.

The Spaniards also shaped Malta’s gastronomy.  Conquistadores brought to the island all of their New World culinary discoveries:

                  The Malta Chocolate Shop is all decked out with goodies for the holidays

          ~  Malta is thought to have been the first place after Spain (in all of Europe) that chocolate was tasted.      

          ~ Tomatoes are a huge part of the island's culinary landscape.  With the Malta’s moderate winter weather there are tomatoes still growing in some gardens.  Moreover, dried tomatoes are for sale in every shop.  Sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil are a common ingredient on a platt malti.

              Aljotta is a cousin of bouillabaisse....both were brought to Europe by Phoenicians

Let’s not, however, forget the Phoenicians who were the first to arrive.  The Phoenicians were responsible for bringing their ubiquitous fish stew to all of the Mediterranean.  The French call it bouillabaisse, but in Malta it’s referred to as aljotta.  Instead of pricey saffron, the Maltese version uses mint and lemon for final flavoring.

There are >200 bee keepers on this tiny island

Finally, Malta’s culinary profile cannot be discussed without speaking of the root of its name.   Malta means “honey.”   Considered to be some of the best in the Mediterranean, Maltese honey is unique because of the island’s abundance of wild thyme which lends a distinct flavor.  For certain there will be some in my suitcase.

Lovin' Malta!

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Charbono: Noah’s Ark of Nearly Extinct Grapes

               Charbono thrives in climates where there is a huge swing between day & night temps

Charbono has been declared an “endangered” grape by Slow Food.  (The Slow Food movement begin >30 years ago when an Italian food journalist took a stand against fast food by protesting the opening of McDonald’s in the heart of ancient Rome.)   A nearly extinct varietal, Charbono has become somewhat of a cult wine.   First, because it is produced in very limited quantities in the US.   Secondly, it has a loyal following of connoisseurs. 


In Argentina, however, Charbono is surprisingly the most widely planted red grape after Malbec.  In South America (above photo), Charbono is called Bonarda.  It was imported to Argentina by Italian immigrants.  In fact, this dark red grape is thought to have originated in Italy.


                             The Charbono grape is late ripening so it's one of the last picked

Charbono (aka Bonarda), is thought to have first been planted 3,000 years ago by the Etruscans in Italy.   Today, relatively little of the grape remains in Europe with the exception of the France’s Savoie region in the southeast.  Most of these grapes have now taken root in the New World with Argentina leading the production.


Currently there are fewer than 100 acres of Charbono grapes in California.   The most ideal location for the grape appears to be the microclimate of the Calistoga area.  Calistoga is about 10 degrees warmer than lower parts of the Napa Valley, but it’s the cooling nighttime fog brought in along the Russian River that makes this area ideal.  In Argentina, the Andes mountain vineyards also provide for hot days and cold nights.  Known as a “diurnal shift,” these dramatic differences between day and night temperature allow Charbono to ripen but to also keep its acidity. 

           In France Charbono is called Douce Noir & it is grown at the foot of the Alps

So what does Charbono offer in one’s glass?   Its color is a deep inky purple due to the large amount of dark pigments in the grape’s skin.  On the nose, think dark-red and black fruits (e.g. blackberries, cherries and plums) mixed with an interesting mélange of flavors such as licorice and tobacco---that can develop into leather or tar as it age).  In the mouth, the wine serves up flavors of black fruits, medium tannins, and a solid acid structure making it a perfect pairing for foods.

Here are my recommendations for Charbonos/Bonardas to try (listed in order of price):

  • Bodega Aleana El Enemigo Single Vineyard:  $20  (BEST BUY FOR QUALITY)
  • Hobo Wines Folk Machine (California):  $25
  • Familia Zuccardi’s Emma Bonarda  (Argentina):  $35
  • Robert Foley (California):  $45

Buy a bottle before it's too late!

Sunday, November 6, 2022

A Foodies' Calabria


                Tropea is famous for its stupendous beach and for its special shallot-like red onion

Calabria is a region I visited nearly years ago and have always longed to return.  I've just returned home after renting an apartment here for the week in the seaside village of Tropea.  Located all the way at the end of this boot-shaped country (on the western “toe”), Calabria offers >500 miles of dramatic coastline and a particularly strong food culture.  After a month of Wine-Knows’ trips in France, I was ready for some quiet R & R at the spiaggia (beach).


                 Onions and chilies are intricately interwoven in Calabria's culinary tapestry

Agriculture is a big deal in Calabria.  One of the poorest parts of Italy, Calabria’s fertile soil has been extremely important in feeding its population.  Calabria is Italy’s second largest producer of olive oil.  Not only is it a huge economic force in the region, but olive oil is one of the most important items in the Calabrian diet.  This oil has been essential in preserving food for the struggling population: vegetables, fish, and precious meat are all preserved in oil.  While many vegetables are grown, the showstoppers for me were the Tropean red onions, the Calabrese tomatoes, and the eggplant:  a kind of Holy Trinity for my week here.

    Swordfish is plentiful and is often served simply grilled & then finished with a splash of EVOO

Calabrian cuisine is simple and based mostly upon what people can grow or catch in the water or on the land.  As Calabria is surrounded on two sides by the Mediterranean, sea fare has been a popular source of protein.   Swordfish and sardines are mainstays, but clams and mussels are also prevalent.  Rabbit is a standard and is prepared endless ways:  rabbit stew (e.g. with onions, wine & wild herbs or with tomatoes & red peppers), rabbit sausage, braised rabbit with local wild mushrooms, and pasta with rabbit.

                  Bergamot, the flavoring in Earl Grey, is used in pastries & creamy desserts

While Calabrian cooking is simple, don’t mistake simple for mundane.  One of Calabria’s favorite condiments is its chili peppers.  Strolling through villages one notes strings of chilies hanging on balconies to dry in the sun.  Touches of this medium heat chili were present in many dishes throughout the week, adding an interesting depth of flavor and fruity as well as smoky tastes.  By the way, upon returning home I found that Calabrian chili has become so popular that Amazon offers >250 preparations, and Trader Joe’s carries it.  Also, Giada de Laurentis loves this chili….many of her recipes include Calabrian chili paste, and she uses them in her restaurants.

                          Licorice in Calabria is so special that it is protected by the government

Calabria's licorice is nearly sacred.  Both the root and extract have been granted a special protected status by the Italian Government, and only licorice grown in Calabria can be called D.O.P. (protected origin).   Licorice is used to amp up  Calabria's ice creams, cookies, cakes and many other sweets.  There's also a plethora of licorice-infused alcohols varying from digestives to sweet liqueurs. 

Viva Calabria!