I was rummaging through my cupboards today, hunting for olive oil, when I knocked over a thick, glass bottle full of lurid pink liquid that fell with a dull thud onto the tip of my big toe. After I stopped swearing and looked at the offending bottle I realised that it was Bajtra, a souvenir from a recent trip to Malta and the taste of that floral, bewitchingly sweet liqueur flooded back from my memory.
I’ll always have a bit of a soft spot for Malta. It was one of the first places I went on holiday with just my mother, leaving my brother, father and friends at home. She whisked me away after my first year of college to this tiny, faintly exotic-sounding island in the middle of a July heatwave and our week was spent wilting under the fierce, lemon light of a Mediterranean sun, gaping at the capital city Valletta with its battlements, cobbled streets and palatial mansions and taking beaten up local buses to tiny villages selling lace, glass and amber. I remember the gleam of the silver suits of armour in the Grandmaster’s Palace; I remember the Liberace lavishness of the inside of St John’s Co-Cathedral; I remember leaving a carefully folded paper wish at Mary’s statue in the old church on neighbouring Gozo island and I remember the impossible blue of the water surrounding the craggy coastline, but, I remember very little about the food.
If I racked my brains I could just recall the thick-skinned, greenish oranges they served at the hotel breakfast and the bowls of fat, oil-coated olives that, at that time, neither I nor my mother much cared for. So when I was invited on a gastronomic trip to Malta in November to write a destination guide to Valletta, I was intrigued. What had this little island, marooned near the foodie juggernaut of Sicily but with a surface area only as big as the Isle of Wight got to offer?
I think it was during the second course of the first night’s meal that I realised that this wasn’t the Malta I remembered from 13 years ago. Our rowdy rabble of writers and PRs were squeezed around a wooden table in the dimly-lit Tarragon, a pretty little restaurant with panoramic views of the sea and a menu to die for. I felt like Belle in Beauty and the Beast as, course by course, one by one, dishes appeared on the table. Tiny, spherified olives; plates of tender, rabbit in a creamy, sweet Madeira sauce; garlicky piles of salty, fried whitebait; hand smoked ruby salmon, just this side of cooked; shots of spicy carrot soup and, the main event, a platter of pernod, salt crusted fish that they set alight at the table.
The evening ended with iced glassed of Bajtra, the local spirit made with the prickly pears that grow in abundance all over the island. The feasting continued the next day with an 11am visit to one of the vineyards that cover the sun-baked, fertile landscape. Meridiana wine estate produces a portfolio of zesty whites and heady reds named after gods and goddesses that will, mostly, only ever be drunk on the island.
Our guide told me that most of what they produce is swallowed by domestic demand and only a tiny portion makes it overseas, and most of that is on special order. It seemed astonishing to me that this reasonably priced and frankly delicious wine was so hard to get hold of outside of Malta. Apparently there’s one notable London hotel that stocks one white and one red, with a 500% mark up in price.
After trying and falling in love with Meridiana’s buttery Isis Chardonnay, which was poured alongside plates of peppered local goats cheese and Maltese water crackers, we were whisked away again to lunch at Gululu, a restaurant on the water’s edge in Spinola Bay where the menu presented some…unusual choices.
This was a Malta full of seasonal, local produce, full of sun-wrinkled, oily tomatoes, fat figs and juicy peaches, sharp capers, seafood fresh from the water and locally sourced, locally made booze by the barrel-full. The gastronomic showing off continued back at the Phoenecia Hotel where the head chef of their onsite restaurant, Pegasus, Saul Halevi walked us around the sprawling kitchen gardens. He would disappear behind the foliage, reappearing a few moments later clutching handfuls of ripe tomatoes, courgettes or rocket, stopping to present trays of aubergines stuffed with ricotta and vegetable tartlets. Later he cooked us pearl barley risotto, marinated prawns and octopus before I staggered, too full to think to the hotel bar to sink into one of their deep leather chairs and deliberate, cogitate and digest all that I had tasted, sampled and gorged.
But even there, the Maltese spirit followed me as the bar man presented me with one last flavour of Malta: A cocktail made from Maltese grapes, Gozo honey, sparkling wine and, of course, Bajtra. At the time I think that cocktail sent me over the precipice of full to bursting. It was my ‘wafer thin,’ Mr Creosote moment that made it into my previous blog about lessons learned from 2013. While it may have been an ill-advised digestif at the time, the taste of that curiously fruity, rose scented alcohol has lingered and when the bottle fell unceremoniously on my foot this morning it prompted me to do something with it.
Being fragrant, pink, floral and sweet, it makes an ideal substitute for rose water in sweets like marshmallow and macaroons. Here’s an easy, gelatin-free version of Turkish delight, flavoured with Bajtra, that makes a perfect, gift-sized portion…if you manage not to scoff the lot yourself.
Maltese-Flavoured Turkish Delight
Turkish delight uses very few ingredients, just a lot of sugar. It’s usually coloured using a couple of drops of red food dye but I found that the Bajtra gave it a lovely, natural peachy tint.
400g white caster sugar
1/2 tsp cream of tartar
1/2 tbsp lemon juice
1-2 tbsp Bajtra
Icing sugar and more cornflour to dust.
- Put the caster sugar with 190 ml of water and the lemon juice in a heavy-based saucepan and bring to the boil, stirring continuously. You need to get the sugar syrup to a ‘soft ball’ stage – when you can form the syrup into a soft ball in a glass of cold water – this is easiest with a sugar thermometer. It should be at soft ball stage when the temperature gets to 115 degrees C.
- Take the syrup off the heat and drop the cornflour and cream of tartar into another pan with 250 ml of water, whisking to make sure there are no lumps. Bring this to the boil until it turns into a sort of pasty glue substance before adding the sugar syrup, a little at a time until it’s all mixed together.
- Boil this on a gently simmer for about an hour, until the gloopy liquid has turned a soft gold colour.
- Stir through the Bajtra and pour into a greased, lined tray and cover to set. It will take a good few hours to reach the best texture and is best left overnight.
- When the Turkish delight has set, tip the block onto a board covered in icing sugar and cut into squares. Coat the squares in a mixture of icing sugar and cornflour so they won’t stick and store in Tupperware in the cupboard – these little floral bites are perfect for a sugar fix or with a cup of strong, black coffee!
Rooms at Phoenicia Hotel start from just £55 per person per night, based on two sharing on a room only basis, for advance purchase online bookings with minimum three-night stay. To book visit www.phoeniciamalta.com or call 0800 862 0025.
For more information on holidays in Malta see the Malta Tourism Authority’s website www.visitmalta.com