A soft, holey core cocooned in a crusty shell. Its rugged, rustic looks perfectly mirror the sinewy muscles and dexterous, grassroots hands that knead the dough into shape, oversee its baking until it is pulled out from what seems like a distant cousin of a cave.
A mere whiff of a genuine Maltese loaf of bread (that’s ħobża Maltija without flour treatment agents and additives) makes you salivate. Its aroma evokes all the enjoyment of digging into something scrumptious seconds after having been embraced and kissed by a loving family. Its taste – whether simply buttered up, or piled high with favourite bits and bites – is a taste of heaven. More so, if it has been smeared with sun-kissed, summer tomatoes, dunked in top-notch olive oil and dressed with a concoction of olives, capers, onions, beans, pickled veggies, fresh basil or mint, and tuna. Munch it on the beach, down it with a glass of wine … and you are in paradise regained. It’s a sure bet that traditional Maltese bread will win over the most skeptic foodies.
So why is it on the verge of extinction?
The answer lies in a lack of love and appreciation for the authentic ħobża aggravated by our unwillingness to save it; the surging popularity of fancy bread and … living in the 21st century, where consumers gawk at the very thought of having to slice a loaf themselves. They are also quick to point out that Maltese bread gives you undesirable waistlines. Ironically several naysayers binge on fast-food and shun exercise with the consequence of being awfully overweight. The irony of the situation appears to be totally lost on them.
Admittedly, it is tough trying to undo a deeply ingrained misconception. Yet it will take much more to save the delectable Maltese loaf of bread.
Getting curious to discover it is the first baby-step. The confident stride will ensue if its authentic production and marketing are tangibly supported as a certified and registered genuine Maltese product as well as by seeking UNESCO world heritage status (as has already been suggested). No doubt, such production will entail a higher price than its poor imitations because its rarity has now rendered it an exclusive artisan type of bread. Contrary to perception, there is a market for the real hobza Maltija.
Apart from the crucial mix of flour, salt, top-quality water, tinsila (a bit of yesterday’s dough) must be the secret, magical ingredient. I love the concept of continuity behind this because it’s like creating ongoing generations of families. The traditional Maltese ħobża must be baked in a cooking chamber shaped like a hollow dome and paved in soft limestone stone slabs. Often covered by infill, it is likely to have a double wall with a central void to insulate the oven interior. A handful of these indigenous bakeries still exist, and not only in Qormi, the locality that owes its very existence to centuries of bread baking; and in fact was known as Casal Fornaro. Quality control should, therefore, be much easier given the few extant traditional bakeries.
The baking process also needs to be kept under the lens. Wood is used to heat the chamber which explains why the indigenous oven takes the name of tal-ħattab. Heating (tkebbisa) is a slow two-hour process. The fire is then extinguished, and the oven is ready to be loaded with all the goodies that need baking. The stone gradually releases the accumulated heat to ensure a proper baking. (The traditional Maltese loaf takes up to forty-five minutes of cooking time). Such stone ovens can continue to operate for twelve hours after the fire has been put out, which explains the distinct rhythm of a baker’s life.
Get talking to one of the traditional bakers and you are in for a treat as he explains the process while naming all the components of the oven structure and the implements he handles with evident pride and passion.
A type of flat, long-handled shovel called il-pala immediately catches the eye; as does il-palun, its larger version. Both are used to load the dough and unload the piping hot loaves.
All this is a far cry from the more cost-efficient electric ovens which most bakeries opted for way back in the ‘70s. Unlike then, Maltese bread no longer dominates our daily intake of food. Dietary reasons have many people give it a miss. Furthermore, Maltese bread now contends with strong competition in the form of tonnes of locally mass-produced and imported frozen bread, which is warmed up on the spot and sold as ‘fresh’ bread at supermarkets. Even the fact that it is not sliced, is putting consumers off. True that imitations of the Maltese ħobza (read no crispy crust, no finger-poking holes) are available in slices but this is the kind of convenience that dents the full flavor of the genuine article.
The annual bread festival in Qormi may showcase the traditional bakery in all its glory, but the latter is clearly living through its swansong. The death of the authentic Maltese bread loaf means that this part of Malta will also be gone, and gone forever. I can’t help feeling that this extinction mirrors the wholesale destruction of what once made my beloved rock such a wonderful place to live in.
This somber thought adds a melancholic whiff to the magic of stepping inside an indigenous bakery partaking of its peculiar sounds, watching a fine film of flour settle on every surface including the tip of your nose, while the fragrance of freshly baked bread saturates everything within reach and hits the street like a lingering refrain.
BREAD: NO ORDINARY FOODSTUFF
We might not give much thought to bread, yet it infiltrates different aspects of our culture. As in all western countries and the Middle East, bread is the primary staple food whose wholesomeness and delight defies the strictest of diet regimes. It indeed must be a misery for most people who suffer from specific chronic disease, or allergy, to cut it out completely from their eating habits.
Proverbs and popular sayings show how bread is linked to wealth and well-being and it has a particularly strong symbolic role in the Christian religion since bread is the very embodiment of the body of Christ. No countdown to Easter in Malta would be complete without the sizeable bread ring coated in sesame seeds and punctured with a handful of almonds. Known as the Apostles’ Ring, it flies off the shelves within seconds of having been stacked.
Up to about fifty years ago, specific types of bread were associated with the cult of some saints. The bread bun dedicated to Saint Martin lives on as the most popular. His feast day falls on November 11 and is celebrated on the second Sunday of November – often a warm and sunny weekend which Maltese people call Saint Martin’s summer, the equivalent of an Indian summer. Curiously, people from Siggiewi big devotees of Saint Nicholas) used to make Saint Nicolas’s bread. This was believed to give healing powers to water in which it was immersed.
All this provides a stark contrast with the ordinariness we associate with bread and its consumption.