Green & Tranquil Malta: Tasting Maltese Food & Wine in the Countryside
Close 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:
- Hold the vessel of olive oil in your hand to warm it up.
- 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.)
- Sip the olive oil and swirl in your mouth for a few seconds before drinking.
Recipe: Rosemary-Honey Baguette Slices
- Slice a baguette into thin pieces.
- Drizzle honey atop each slice. Follow with olive oil. Use the highest quality olive oil and honey you can find.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Trees and other Mediterranean flora cradle a fishpond on the property.
Walking this path (left), we brushed up against fresh rosemary, leaving an aromatic scent hanging in the air.
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!
Smiles and curiosity all around. Merill co-founder Jeanette Borg is third from the left.
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’.
Meandering through the grove, past carob, pomegranate, and olive trees.
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.
A row of beehive boxes. Due to the cold, Jeanette explained that bees were probably hiding inside and conserving energy.
Gluten-free baguette slices, dressed in locally-made quince jam, tempted my hungry belly. They didn’t last long!
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).
An inviting crate of citrus, studded with sprigs of fresh rosemary.
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.
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.
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.
A glass of Ghirgentina wine (left), a grape varietal that is indigenous to Malta.
Christian Borg, Merill’s co-founder, prepares to spruce up these slices of bread with Maltese honey and a few other trimmings.
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.
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.
Our Video of this Experience:
Where in the World?
- 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.