The most southerly country in the European Union and also the smallest. The archipelago of Malta – with its two sister islands Gozo and Comino, and the uninhabited islands of Cominotto and Fifla – is situated 80 km south of Sicily and 280 km north-east of Tunisia. The history of this tiny outpost in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea goes back to the dawn of civilization: its earliest settlements date back to 7,000 years ago, although the first written documentation is in the Bible, with the account of Saint Paul being shipwrecked there.
Over the millennia, Malta has been an obligatory port of call on all the main sea routes of the Mediterranean, and consequently has been constantly fought over and occupied by many powers: Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Sicilians, Templar Knights, France and Britain… the island gained its independence from the latter only in 1964.
Today, the fascination of Malta lies precisely in this accumulation of different cultures, still clearly visible in its capital, Valletta, and now drawing numerous tourists who make a major contribution to the island’s economy.
A name filled with sweetness
Malta’s name is rooted in food – the ancient Greeks called it Melite, meaning ‘honey’, due to the large quantities of bees on the island – and the food eaten today reflects the essence of Mediterranean diet over the centuries.
Malta’s traditional dishes vary with the passage of the seasons. They range from Lampuki Pie (a fish pie) to Rabbit Stew, Bragioli (olive and beef), and Kapumata (similar to ratatouille). Then there is Widow’s Soup, served with a small Gbejniet pie (sheep’s cheese or goats’ cheese). Any food shop or stall sells Bigilla, a thick bean paste with garlic. Tapas-type snacks – nibbled with a glass of tasty local wine – include Hobz biz-zej (thick slices of bread dipped in olive oil, rubbed with ripe tomatoes and filled with a mixture of tuna, onion, garlic, tomato and capers) and Pastizzi (pastries filled with ricotta or pea paste).
Naturally, now as in ancient times, the sea is the main source of protein, forming the base of popular dishes such as the Aljotta (fish soup), and fish stews or fish pasta sauces with squid and octopus.
Among the most common desserts are Kannoli and Kassata, whose names reveal their Sicilian origins, and the Helwa tat-Tork, made with crushed sweets and whole almonds. Spring is the period for Figolli (an Easter specialty with shaped pastries stuffed with almonds) and midwinter the season for Qaghaq tal-ghasel, a dessert based on the ancient ingredient which Malta was famed for: honey.
A hive of knowledge
Bees and honey are very much at the center of the Maltese Pavilion in Expo Milano 2015, situated in the Bio-Mediterraneum Cluster. Inspired by the shape of a beehive, it features a large dome with hexagonal cells, each filled with videos showing Malta’s riches. To this day, in fact, bees continue to thickly populate the archipelago. The colors used throughout the exhibition space are typically Mediterranean, evoking health, relaxation and wellbeing, mixed with the colors of Malta’s flag.