When I used to think of Mediterranean cooking, this is what I imagined: images of olive oil sizzling in steaming skillets, chefs—usually male—with big white hats, fresh bread coming out of the oven and being slathered with plump tomatoes and drizzled in oil and vinegar; fresh, wet mozzarella slices on a wooden platter, sliced into thick pieces, fanned out in a half-moon and accompanied by stuffed olives and sun-dried tomatoes. Hands bringing out pastas on large plates, swirled and tossed in light pesto sauces; chicken breasts flavored in oregano and basil; pastries, flaky and filled with spinach and ricotta cheese, accompanying tiny cups of dark-roasted coffee and espresso; bakery displays filled with flans; glass bins of whipped gelato; plates of sweet crepes sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar….
There’s a huge problem with this picture, not the least of which is how I naturally assumed that Mediterranean chefs are always male and that bruschetta comes with literally everything. The biggest problem with this picture is that everything is taking place in a kitchen.
None of the images involve a farm, a harvest, or a sharing of recipes between generations, friends, or families. Modern agricultural practices have allowed so many of us to be lulled into the idea that meals come fully-formed out of an oven—Mediterranean or otherwise, and this, I think, is one of the most important practices that modern tourism has the potential to debunk. With so many local farmer’s markets, open-air bazaars, and opportunities to visit bistros, cafes, and restaurants that—dare I say it, embrace the currently trending “farm-to-table” mantra—there is no excuse, really, to continue believing that all good food comes out, piping hot, from a kitchen, fully prepared.
This is what I learned the morning I visited the Ta’ Qali farmer’s market on the northeast coast of Malta. The market—which, by the way, is the very first open-air market in Malta’s recent history—is starting to fill a niche that the Maltese supermarkets and street sellers just haven’t been able to: introducing locals and foreigners to the beauty of the island’s natural fruits and vegetables in their raw, pulled-right-from-the-ground (or, as the case may be, tree, or coop) organic form in an organized, dependable weekly open-air space.
Most of the foods have been harvested that morning or the day before. The farmers get to interact with their customers, establishing a relationship, sharing recipes and ideas for cooking, and introducing them to new foods they might not have tried before. The market sells locally-made products, too—on a lucky day, you can find Maltese delights such as bigilla (white bean dip), sundried tomatoes, bread, honey, and—what is perhaps the most delicious food I’ve ever tried in my entire life—balls of ġbejniet (peppered cheeselets). The sellers aren’t just local farmers, either—sometimes restaurant managers and chefs set up stalls and cook the food, right then and there, that people have purchased that morning, and sell it back to them as a fully-cooked take-away meal.
On the bright, warm Saturday morning that my husband and I visited the market on our way to catch the ferry boat to the nearby island of Gozo, we found, among others:
- Pizzas (cheese and pepperoni)
- Pastizzis (ricotta-filled pastries)
- Citrus Fruits
The flavor, size, and heartiness of the fruits and vegetables differ from week to week, as everything grown and sold here is locally-made and completely organic. Even though the country is small enough to bike across in one afternoon, the wind, sunshine, and temperature can vary drastically from one side of the island to the other. According to one farmer I met, a lovely young woman from the Barolo family, the sun doesn’t shine equally all over Malta. In fact, though it might appear that the whole beige island is white-washed in sunshine year-round, the island is made up of a number micro-climates, all of which affect the crops in surprisingly interesting ways. Farms on the northern cliffs, for instance, tend to be cloudier, whereas farms near the low-lying resort towns on the east and southern coasts tend to be cloudless and hotter. The sirocco winds, famous for blasting all over Malta year-round, also play a role in production.
When I got back to my hotel that evening, I did a little bit of research to find out why Malta hasn’t ever had an official market before Ta’ Qali, and what I found was interesting. Despitebeing a country sandwiched between Mediterranean Europe and North Africa, places where open-air markets are a part of daily life, I couldn’t believe that there had never, ever been an official farmer’s market on the entire island. The story, as it so happens, goes something like this: A few years ago, while on a visit to London,Resources and Rural Affairs Minister George Pullicino strolled by one of the city’s street markets and saw how much both sellers and buyers were committed to and connecting with each other over food. He realized that was exactly what his country had been missing. Before the opening of the market, many of the local fruits, vegetables, and produce were bought directly from farmers and sold to hawkers, who would then adjust the price to fit their fuel and delivery costs and then sell—from dawn to dusk—in the streets of Malta’s many small villages. Though this is still common practice—and many peoples’ livelihood—he was so impressed with the idea of a farmer’s market and helping local farmers connect with the community in an organic, collaborative way, teach Maltese and foreigners about Maltese agricultural practices and seasonal products, and have more autonomy over their income and profits, that when he returned home from London, he immediately put out a call for applications. Though the start was a little rocky (it’s rumored that there was a lot of worry among farmers that no one would come and that the market wouldn’t make it), within a few months the results were clear: Malta’s first farmer’s market was—and still is—a beautiful, colorful, bountiful success.
Not only were the farmers happy with their sales, hawkers’ business relatively unaffected, and both locals and tourists satisfied with their purchases, but the Ministry received several more requests to open other farmers’ markets in other parts of Malta and Gozo.
As my husband and I walked around, listening to the ongoing bartering in the beautiful, husky Maltese language I adore and eating our freshly-baked pizzas and pastizzis, we thought to ourselves: this was a very good idea, indeed. For one, the beauty of a chaotic market is unmatched as an experience—the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes are not only overwhelming but one of the purest ways to see a community at work. Secondly, though, I learned an important lesson, too: I will never think of Mediterreanean cooking in the same way. I will think of Ta’ Qali, the farmers, the hawkers, the round, plump eggplants, the copper-colored honey with flecks of comb inside, the way Ms. Barolo described Malta’s sunshine, and the sweet, flaky taste of the date candies we bought and ate, one by one, on the ferry boat to Gozo.
Ta Qali Farmer’s Market, Ta’ Qali, Malta
How to get there: You can take any of the following bus routes: 106, 107, 51, 52, 53, 202, 109, X3 (basically, most of the buses will pass by at least once)
When it’s open: Tuesdays 16:00-19:00, Saturdays 09:00-17:00
Article and photographs (all of which were taken on my smartphone) by Kristin Winet.
A special thanks to the Malta Tourism Authority for introducing me to the lovely freshness of Malta’s farmer’s markets.