Even when I try my hardest not to exoticize someone else’s food when I travel, no trip to a foreign country is really complete without one of the “what-did-you-just-eat” narratives. Problems with making someone else’s local food seem exotic or unnatural aside, the day that my husband and I visited Malta’s newest artisan fare restaurant, Diar Il-Bniet, to taste the local rabbit, I couldn’t help but feel simultaneously elated and guilty: for one, I was finally trying a dish I’d heard so many of my Maltese friends talk about, but I was also wrestling with eating an animal that might have resembled, in some ways, my two adorable cats at home. This is not the first time this has happened to me (nor, I suspect, the last), so I decided after a little deliberation that I, bunny-lover, would taste the hare so famous in these Mediterranean islands.
“It’s not like a bunny rabbit,” my friend Alba told me the night before. “It’s more like, oh, I don’t know, a kind of hare. They aren’t fuzzy or furry–nobody keeps them as pets. They’re pretty much wild animals.” Though her explanation was certainly helpful, it can be difficult for people (especially an animal lover like myself) to completely remove ourselves from our fuzzy associations with animals and overcome our fear when trying new and unfamiliar foods. But, here we are, in a gorgeous restaurant in Dingli, Malta, a family-run place that specializes in local farm-fresh foods. One of these foods, not surprisingly, is rabbit.
As the family tells it, the inspiration for bringing their family recipes to the public came from the family’s grandmother, a loving woman named Manan who was, as the story goes, married in 1946 in a bomb shelter underneath the old carob tree. On Sundays, after mass at St. Mary’s Church in Dingli, the entire family would gather expectantly at her house for dinner, and she would prepare such delights for them as Maltese potatoes fried in garlic, ross il-forn (baked rice), warm pies, and peppery cheeses, and fresh lemonade from the lemon tree that grew in her backyard. After she passed away in 2005, the family decided they wanted to spread Manan’s passion for feeding others through traditional, home-cooked recipes and so got together and started laying the foundation for Diar Il-Bniet.
Seeing the menu, my husband Ryan was immediately excited when he sees all the decadent, flavorful menu items listed. As a seasonal restaurant that serves only the food it produces on its nearby family farm, Diar Il-Bniet’s menu is constantly changing (sometimes from day-to-day). Though this sometimes makes the menu unpredictable, there is no lack of creativity and vision when it comes to combining fresh ingredients and traditional cooking technique. The foods are heavily meat-based, though there are vegetarian options as well, and the menu centers on such home-cooked delicacies as lamb, chicken, beef, pork, and, of course, rabbit. These dishes are often accompanied by anything and everything that you might assume would come on a plate of someone’s lovingly-prepared home cooking: baked potatoes, grilled squash, fried eggs. Plenty of the dishes are also topped with gravy or home-crushed tomato sauces (some of which are sold in jars and can be taken home).
We started our afternoon lunch with a Maltese specialty, a dish called Ravjul bil-gbejniet minn taghna that consists of stuffed raviolis filled with Maltese sheep’s cheese and covered in a red sauce. The plate came with six enormous raviolis–enough to be, quite frankly, a meal in itself (and yes, I regret to admit that we ate it before I could take a picture of it for purposes of this blog post). The sauce was think and creamy, a bit sweet, with a hint of bitterness from the fresh tomatoes.
Here’s the dish I ordered, Nofs Tigiega il-forn, a grilled half-chicken with rosemary potatoes and squash:
Ryan ordered Spagetti bil-bicciet tal-fenek, round spaghetti in meat sauce with pieces of rabbit:
In a very not climatic turn of events, the rabbit–just as the chicken–turned out to be absolutely fantastic. The meat was tender and slow-cooked in thyme and there weren’t any visions of happy farm bunnies dancing around as I took my first bite. Instead, I felt a little closer to these Maltese islands, feeling grateful for the animal that gave rise to this time-tested recipe, this beautiful collection of flavors and smells that are inside thousands of Maltese kitchens, every day.
Diar Il-Bniet is very close to the ancient city of Mdina in Malta. To get there, simply hop on one of the local buses that goes to Dingli, get off at the city center, and you’ll see the restaurant on the main street. It’s open every day except Wednesdays, which is harvesting day at the farm.
A special thanks to the Malta Tourism Authority for hosting my experience at Diar Il-Bniet.