Living in Valletta, where there isn’t much green space, Shawn and I have swiftly fallen for the charms of Malta’s countryside. While honking horns and heavy traffic prevail in the densely populated parts of the Mediterranean island, the feeling is relaxed outside these urban areas. Open fields are dotted with agricultural plots of land and rocky walls, and the air is fresh and crisp. And if you keep motoring far enough, you reach land’s end and the beginning of the brilliant blue sea.
Malta, like other Mediterranean countries, grows citrus fruit such as oranges, lemons and grapefruit. While not indigenous to Malta, the country’s orange trees are believed to have been planted by the Arabs in the ninth and tenth centuries; they’re reputed for having brought irrigation techniques to the island as well.
The Maltese speak proudly of the citrus trees thriving in the private courtyards of their homes. The general consensus is that Malta’s centrally-located ‘Three Villages’ of Attard, Balzan and Lija grow some of the best oranges, because of the area’s soil composition. And, each January, Malta’s presidential palace gardens play host to a delightful Citrus Festival where carts and crates are filled to the brim with fruit from the garden’s trees. It is sold by the bushel for charity.
The weekend after we’d enjoyed the regal Citrus Festival in the San Anton Palace Gardens, Shawn and I were determined to get our hands dirty and see what it was like to pluck oranges off a tree ourselves.
Connecting with Christian and Jeanette Borg who founded the ecotourism social enterprise, Merill, we joined a mostly-Maltese bunch of visitors at the Tas-Salut Fruit Orchard, in the western part of the island. We took in extraordinary views of Ġnejna Bay and Malta’s sister island of Gozo, before beginning a short ascent of a terraced hill in which Tas-Salut is nestled. On the way, we spied palm trees, strawberries, and cactus plants; the views of Ġnejna Bay became increasingly gorgeous the higher we climbed.
Leaving the sunlight-drenched, cinnamon-colored fields of the valley below, we entered the cool and well-shaded orchard. Owned by farmer Benny, whose family has maintained the property for generations, Tas-Salut is remarkable not only because of its beauty, but also because such green spaces are becoming increasingly rare as Malta’s land continues to be commercially developed.
Before tiptoeing into the orchard, Merill co-founder Christian shared safety pointers and guidelines for treading respectfully on the land. Though the petite grove was cast in shadow, the vibrant-colored, fragrant oranges seemed to glow through the trees. In about twenty minutes, our tiny group had harvested everything within arm’s reach, amassing an impressive citrus collection.
The afternoon in the countryside continued with a light snack: an orange-tasting, slices of bread adorned with pumpkin and tomato jam (I enjoyed the jam sans bread, because of the gluten), and glasses of traditional Maltese coffee. These products, along with honey, are all produced by Merill’s rural network of farmers. Merill not only brands the farmers’ products, but also helps market them so that farmers can focus upon working the land. All of Merill’s efforts, of course, raise awareness of quality Maltese products, while encouraging the island’s remaining farmers to continue engaging in agriculture.
Upon returning home to Valletta, feeling quite relaxed and a bit chilled from our winter’s day spent in the open air, Shawn and I warmed up with mugs of hot chamomile tea. Later, we enjoyed a magnificent Tas-Salut orange, which we’d harvested earlier in the day. As I savored the juicy segments of the enormous fruit, the wedges sparkled under the light. For a moment, I closed my eyes and remembered the factors that had nurtured the orange’s growth: fresh sea breezes, sunny skies, and a devoted farmer to tend to its branches. With those idyllic ingredients, it’s no wonder the orange was one of the largest and best I’ve ever had.
Merill hosted us for this orange-picking excursion.
Grazzi ħafna to Merill’s Christian, Jeanette, and Stephanie for facilitating such a fun afternoon! Additional thanks to Ray and Doreen for the impromptu tour after the ecotour. :)