Green & Tranquil Malta: Tasting Maltese Food & Wine in the Countryside

malta-ecotour-tasting-food-wine-olive-oil-maltese-countrysideClose to where Malta’s Victoria Lines fortifications taper off, there’s a little piece of Mediterranean paradise –  a plot of land where olive and pomegranate trees, along with chickens, goldfish, frogs, and bees mingle. The spot, called the Tan-Nixxiegħa Olive Grove, began its transformation from overgrown and forgotten, to tended and tranquil, just over a decade ago, thanks to two farmers named Charley and Raymond.

The duo, who are part of the Merill Ecotours Rural Network, converted the green-space, allowing the parcel’s flora and fauna to thrive. Today, thanks to Charley and Raymond’s hard work, you can hear the clucking of chickens, the whisper of the trees’ branches as they dance in the air and the babbling of a tiny fishpond.

Along with Jeanette and Christian Borg (the founding couple behind Merill Ecotours) Shawn, me and a dozen others explored this olive grove and herb garden one Sunday afternoon. Though the winter weather was a bit chilly for Maltese standards, we welcomed the day’s cool, fresh air and the landscape’s peaceful atmosphere.

Meeting at a 17th century-chapel with commanding views of Malta’s sister island, Gozo, Christian asked the group’s participants to tread kindly on the native medicinal plants underfoot. Then, he gave us an overview of his and his wife’s social enterprise, Merill.

“Up until six to seven years ago, the term ecotourism was barely used in Malta,” explained Christian, as he pointed towards the island’s few remaining undeveloped areas. From this vantage point, we could see that even these small pockets of green, rocky land were being engulfed by development.

“Today, because it’s a lot of work, not many people want to engage in agriculture. So we try to support those who do through our rural network,” he added.

Merill’s rural network is made up of a diverse group of farmers and artisans who engage in everything from growing produce to winemaking and weaving. Merill helps support them by branding and marketing their products, and by raising awareness of what they do by leading ecotours.

Later, within the grove’s sheltered confines, Jeanette enthusiastically guided us through the property, treating it like “our classroom”. We learned how to identify Malta’s national tree, plant and bird. Merill’s namesake, by the way, is the country’s national bird. In English, Merill translates to Blue Rock Thrush.

As we brushed past the branches of a carob tree, Jeanette shared the interesting fact that the tree’s bean was once used as a tool for weighing gold. Because the tree’s beans are relatively uniform in size, a piece of gold could be put on a balancing scale against the beans. Over time, this unit transitioned from a given number of ‘carob beans’ to the term carat.

Soon it was time for the excursion’s main event: learning about and tasting olive oil. We also had the opportunity to try a selection of other goodies, ranging from Maltese coffee and wine, to baguette slices flavored with quince jam or tomato paste. My favorite combination consisted of olive oil, honey and fresh rosemary. A ‘recipe’ for this simple snack follows (I hesitate to use the word recipe, because it’s so easy), as do a few pointers from Jeanette and Christian relative to how to approach an olive oil purchase, or tasting.

L-Ikla it-tajba – enjoy!

A Primer for Olive Oil Tasting

“Olive oil, unlike many wines, does not get better with age,” Christian explained. “The fresher, the better.” To extend the life of olive oil, Christian said it’s best to store it in a dark place, to keep it away from direct heat, and keep the bottle tightly sealed to avoid exposure to the air.

Jeanette added that the “slight burning sensation” that you feel in your throat when tasting extra-virgin olive oil, is due to polyphenols, which are beneficial antioxidants. Polyphenols are apparently so desirable that the pharmaceutical industry is trying to duplicate them in their labs.

I found it interesting to learn that the hotter the climate, generally more olive fruit is needed to produce a liter of olive oil.

“In Malta, roughly 8.9 kilograms of olives are needed to produce one liter of olive oil. In Northern Italy, that number might be about 6-7 kg, and in Morocco more are generally needed – about 9-10 kg.”

Though Shawn and I have tasted a bit of wine in Europe and in the United States, this was our maiden foray into olive tasting. Christian made the process straightforward, offering these tips:

  1. Hold the vessel of olive oil in your hand to warm it up.
  2. Make note of the oil’s color; this isn’t an indication of its quality or freshness, though. (In professional tastings, Christian pointed out that judges sample olive oil served in dark glasses. This makes the olive oil samples look uniform in color, so that the judges are not biased by color differences.)
  3. Sniff.
  4. Sip the olive oil and swirl in your mouth for a few seconds before drinking.

 

Recipe: Rosemary-Honey Baguette Slices

  1. Slice a baguette into thin pieces.
  2. Drizzle honey atop each slice. Follow with olive oil. Use the highest quality olive oil and honey you can find.
  3. Snip leaves or sprigs of a fresh herb such as rosemary, then sprinkle on top of the baguette slices. The Merill team said you could also use fresh thyme, lemon balm, or mint.
Victoria Lines Malta near Bingemma Chapel

Slightly resembling a ‘Great Wall of Malta’, the nearby Victoria Line fortifications were built by the British in the last quarter of the 19th century. I’d love to come back and walk along them someday. As we began our excursion, we spotted picnickers soaking up the sunshine here.

Lady of Itria Chapel Bingemma Malta

Our meeting point was the Lady of Itria Chapel in Binġemma (left). It was built in the late 1600s, and offers impressive views of the Victoria Lines defensive walls, as well as the sea and Malta’s sister island, Gozo.

Lady of Itria Chapel Bingemma Gap Malta

View from Binġemma’s chapel (left) and a snippet of its detail (right). The coat of arms, just below the bell, is that of the chapel’s builder.

Mgarr Parish Church Malta Countryside

Views of the Mġarr Parish Church. “On a clear day, when humidity is low, you can actually see Sicily from this olive grove,” Merill co-founder Jeanette Borg said. “But viewings are very rare – perhaps only once or twice a year.”

Maltese Olive Grove and Gardens

Trees and other Mediterranean flora cradle a fishpond on the property.

Fishpond Maltese Countryside

Happy goldfish.

Tan-Nixxiegħa Olive Grove Merill Ecotour

Walking this path (left), we brushed up against fresh rosemary, leaving an aromatic scent hanging in the air.

Glass of Maltese coffee and flowers in garden

To combat the chill in the air, Merill whipped up steaming glasses of traditional Maltese coffee (left). The coffee grounds were blended with anise seed, chicory and cloves. Although the coffee’s flavor was distinctly different, its texture (a bit of grounds at the bottom of the glass) reminded us of Turkish coffee that we regularly enjoyed while traveling through the Balkans in 2013 and 2014. On the right, daffodils in January!

Ecotour Malta Merill

Smiles and curiosity all around. Merill co-founder Jeanette Borg is third from the left.

Malta national tree għargħar and national plant Widnet il-Baħar,

Malta’s national tree, the Għargħar (left) and the country’s national plant, the Widnet il-Baħar (right). Jeanette pointed out that the Għargħar tree (known as Sandarac Gum in English) is endangered in Malta, as there are only estimated to be about 500 on the island. There are five on this particular property. This slow-growing and hardy tree’s resin is used to make lacquer. Its thuya wood is also used for decorative woodworking, particularly in Morocco. As for the national plant, I like the poetic translation of its Maltese name, which literally means ‘ear of the sea’.

Olive Grove Malta Tan-Nixxiegħa

The grove’s olive trees (right) were harvested about three months before our visit, nevertheless we still saw a few olives hanging around (left). Seeing the trees’ muted-green foliage reminded me of our olive-harvesting experience a few months earlier on the University of Malta campus.

Ecotour group in Maltese countryside

Meandering through the grove, past carob, pomegranate, and olive trees.

Malta Olives Fennel

Shawn (left) and fennel (right). We’ve been delighted to see fennel growing in the wild throughout the island; it’s one of our favorite types of herbal teas.

Beehive boxes

A row of beehive boxes. Due to the cold, Jeanette explained that bees were probably hiding inside and conserving energy.

Quince Jam on Baguette Malta

Gluten-free baguette slices, dressed in locally-made quince jam, tempted my hungry belly. They didn’t last long!

Merill Ecotour Local Maltese Food Products

The colorful fabric squares dressing the lids of Merill’s line of tasty food products (left) and strings of onions gracing a cottage wall (right).

Maltese local food products Merill Tour

A tasty line-up of just some of Merill’s food products for sale – everything from olives and capers, to honey, jam and olive oil. Oranges picked during our excursion the day before fill the white paper bags.

Maltese Oranges

An inviting crate of citrus, studded with sprigs of fresh rosemary.

Merill Ecotour and Maltese Olive Oil

Merill’s staffer, Stephanie, holds a platter of bread, smothered in quince jam (left). On the right, a preview of our olive oil tasting to come.

Olive Oil Tasting Malta

Extra virgin olive oil made from olives harvested on the Tan-Nixxiegħa Olive Grove. Jeanette and Christian advised that you should be cautious when purchasing olive oil, because some bottles are fraudulently labeled as ‘extra virgin’ when they’re not. To be considered ‘extra virgin’ an olive oil should only contain just that: oil from the pressed olive’s fruit. It also has to be within certain acidity limits, and have been cold-pressed or mechanically pressed, not chemically-extracted. Generally, people don’t cook with the finer extra-virgin olive oils. It is safe to do so, but cooking with it changes the oil’s flavor. Since the cost for quality extra-virgin olive oil is higher too, it’s generally recommended to use it sparingly as a condiment or for salads.

Maltese Food Baguette Rosemary Tomato Paste Olive Oil

Slices of a baguette, dressed in tomato paste, olive oil, and fresh rosemary, sit on a limestone ledge overlooking the Maltese countryside. The tomato paste is known as kunserva in Maltese, and it’s often paired with tuna and capers too, creating a popular summer snack that’s called Ħobż biż-Żejt.

Glass of Ghirgentina Maltese Wine

A glass of Ghirgentina wine (left), a grape varietal that is indigenous to Malta.

Malta ecotour group

Christian Borg, Merill’s co-founder, prepares to spruce up these slices of bread with Maltese honey and a few other trimmings.

Gluten free bread with Maltese honey, rosemary, olive oil

Last, we savored a simple, but delicious baguette treat that I’d like to recreate myself, made using olive oil, honey and fresh herbs. Find the recipe in the block of text above.

Maltese Countryside

One parting glimpse of the bucolic countryside. When you’ve seen Malta, and realize how much it’s already been developed, you greatly appreciate such open spaces, and people like Jeanette and Christian and their network of farmers who are working to preserve what’s left of the island’s green-space.

Ecotour Malta Group

Our group.

Our Video of this Experience:

Ecotour Rural Malta Video

Where in the World?

Planning Pointers:

  • Merill, an eco tour social enterprise, coordinated this excursion in the countryside. From citrus harvests and wine and cheese tastings, to salt harvests and weaving demonstrations, Merill organizes a variety of experiences throughout Malta. Contact co-founders Jeanette and Christian for more details.
  • Need more inspiration? This link contains an index of all my posts from Malta.

Disclosure & Thanks:

Merill hosted us for this olive-tasting afternoon out in the countryside.

Grazzi ħafna to Merill’s Jeanette and Christian for facilitating this fun, educational and relaxing excursion. From informative emails beforehand, to procuring gluten-free bread for me, and reminding visitors not to tread upon flora, we greatly appreciated your attention to detail and your respect for the environment.

Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

 

27 Comments on “Green & Tranquil Malta: Tasting Maltese Food & Wine in the Countryside

    • Darlene, since you’re also in the Mediterranean, I suspect you’ll be able to find some quality olive oil and honey, plus fresh herbs, to give it a whirl. Although the rosemary was quite nice, I’m curious to see what it’s like with different herbs. As for our time in Malta, we’ll be here through sometime in September, for sure.

  1. Reads your travel letters with great interest. There are so many places to go, and so much to try and taste! Can you share the recipe of the tomato paste, please?

    • Hello Liv, ‘takk’ for your compliment. You’re right that there is so much to see in the world, but doesn’t making a recipe from a far-away place make the world seem more intimate? :) Unfortunately, I do not have a recipe for the special tomato paste that we ate, as I think it is something that the ecotourism enterprise makes and jars themselves. I will ask the owners, Jeanette and Christian, to stop by here and see if they may be able to give you some advice. :)

    • Hi again Liv! I just corresponded with Christian and Jeanette. They’re going to see if they can find some pointers for you about the special tomato paste. I think you’re in Norway, right? They said they’re not currently shipping their local Maltese specialty food products there, but they’d like to explore the possibility. (They said that the different regulations in each country make exporting food a bit challenging.) They also mentioned that you are welcome to email them about it, since they’re trying to find ways to make shipping / selling online easier. Their email is: info@merill.com.mt

      • Thank you Tricia for connecting me with Christian and Jeanette. I love the produces of our local slow food movement, and should liked to have been able to enloy mediterrian produces as well. Unfortunately I don´t know a thing about shipping and selling online to Norway…
        When travelling in Mediterrian countries I have from time to time enjoyed a fresh made tomato paste. I think produces like that should be enjoyed freshly made, and was hoping for an answer something like “Skin two tomatoes, Squeez and add ….?”
        Well, nothing to do about that. I wish them luck with their eco tourism business.

      • Hi Christian,

        This sounds good! Excactly what I was looking for. Do look forward to try the recipe in a smaller scale. Thank you so much!

  2. Great post Tricia, as always. Those baguettes with honey and olive oil sound really delicious, I would have never thought about that combination. I have to try very soon. Thank you Tricia and Shawn

    • Cornelia, I also thought it was an unlikely combination, but was it ever tasty! (It sort of reminded me of an olive oil and ice cream blend we had in Croatia.)

      Here’s hoping you had a lovely weekend!

  3. Pingback: Green & Tranquil Malta: Tasting Maltese Food & Wine in the Countryside — Travels with Tricia A. Mitchell – Nick Lewis

  4. Visited Malta very many years ago and found the hotel decor (dark green midway up wall, cream above) resembled 1950s post war British. The food was bland (no herbs appear to be used) and the wine was bottled before fermentation finished. Like other places, it has obviously moved on Another thing that struck us was the lack of birds, though perhaps that reflected the time of year (over Christmas and New Year). The Christmas decorations in Valletta were quite spectacular and we had an enjoyable time in the hotel celebrating with rather suspect fizzy wine. Our trip to Gozo made us fall in love with a little fishing village there — all very unspoiled. Looks very different now.

    We did look at returning a few years ago, but it seemed difficult to find the real Malta and reasonable accommodation outwith the major tourism areas which give the impression of being very fish and chips and bingo.You prove another Malta is there, just wish it was more easily accessible.

    • Dorothy, we’ve only been here for a few months, but having first visited Malta about a decade ago, I can agree that it has changed. In the news, we regularly hear of locals frustrated with all the development on Malta, as well as their concerns that Gozo, too, might suffer the same fate. Such developments made us quite happy to meet up with Jeanette and Christian, and learn what they’re doing to help the island’s remaining farmers and artisans. I hope the former will be able to hold on to their untouched plots of land!

      Living in Valletta, we got to enjoy those lovely Christmas decorations for a few weeks. I also saw in the news that bird conservation groups were pleased that more birds roosted in Valletta’s trees this year, due to changes in the pruning schedule. That achievement is tempered by news about illegal hunting though.

      Do you recall the name of the Gozitan fishing village which you liked so much? We’ve twice been to Gozo, and appreciated how it’s more open and green there. Looking forward to exploring it more in the coming months, and just might even visit ‘your’ village if you find the name. :)

  5. Your photos of Malta look serine. I loved reading about your excursion. The recipe for rosemary-honey baguette slices was an added bonus. :) Great post!

    • Ellie, I’m happy to hear that; thank you! Given your fondness for the Mediterranean and ability to whip up culinary masterpieces, I think you’d enjoy Malta’s green side as well. This little island is battling overdevelopment, but that makes me appreciate places such as this even more. You’ve also reminded me that I should get some fresh rosemary and try to recreate these yummy baguette treats. Simple, but rewarding.

      • I know exactly what you mean about Malta. I saw it in a few of the Greek islands I visited. The sad thing was, most of the development projects were abandoned. Still, nothing can blemish the beauty of the Mediterranean. :)

      • I haven’t seen many of the Greek islands, but unfortunately witnessed a similar phenomenon in Bulgaria near the Black Sea. Wouldn’t it be lovely if a good number of these abandoned buildings could be repurposed to prevent further development of green spaces? I guess this is often on my mind, since Malta has so many vacant buildings. It’s fun to imagine what kinds of boutiques, offices, and other businesses could take root there though.

  6. Fascinating article, and great tips for EVOO tasting. Love the sound of the olive oil, honey, rosemary baguette. Will definitely give it a go :-)

    • FarmerFi, I see that you have your own grove! How special it’ll be to eventually try this recipe out using olives from your own trees. (Here’s hoping your weather conditions improve soon so you can get a substantial harvest!)

      Malta had a record-dry winter this year, and this drought has taken its toll on the country’s bees. As we walk past Malta’s olive trees they seem to be bearing fruit now, but I can’t tell if the harvest will be adversely impacted later this year. We were delighted to be able to participate in an olive harvest as volunteers last year; the university arranged for some of their trees on campus to be picked, and then the olives were pressed and made into fantastic oil. The proceeds were given to charity.

      • Your olive harvest experience sounds like great fun! What a wonderful idea from the university 😃 The weather seems to have been odd all over the world this past year. Tassie has been sooo dry, until a couple of months ago when it started raining, and then there’s been flooding! I hadn’t thought about the impact on bees, not sure if we’ve had a similar problem due to drought. Fingers crossed for the Maltese olive harvest!

      • Having a connection to nature, via agriculture, makes one much more aware of climate challenges, doesn’t it? When we went to interview a Maltese beekeeper a few months ago, I naively asked him if we could purchase some honey. I hadn’t realized that his bees’ honey production had practically come to a halt because of the drought here. Sadly, many of his bees were starving, due to a lack of flora. As a result, he was giving them a supplement to help them merely survive. I hear we might have a thunderstorm next week, and while I’m not happy that mosquito numbers will likely surge, I hope the rain will indirectly help the island’s bees. :) Here’s hoping you have a lovely weekend!

      • Yes, so much more aware! And also more aware that everything’s connected and needs to be kept in balance! So it may not be possible to only have the bits we like (bees) and not the bits we don’t (mozzies) without upsetting other things we don’t even know about! I’m sure the rain will help the bees :-)

  7. Pingback: Green Malta – SHAWN'S STORIES

Join the conversation.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: