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A country built by Romans, Arabs and knights, Malta has everything you could want from a Mediterranean destination, including the very best sourdough, says Norma’s Maltese-born executive chef Giovann Attard
Few destinations in the world have been quite as sought after as Malta and its seven islets in the middle of the Mediterranean. The Phoenicians made it home first, circa 700BC – bringing with them wine, it has to be noted – before a succession of peoples took possession: the Romans; the Arabs; the Norman County of Sicily; and the Knights of the Order of St John, who managed to hold off an invading Ottoman empire for four months in the Great Siege in 1530. The French followed in 1798, but didn’t last long, before the British arrived. ‘Everybody comes and leaves a bit of influence on Malta,’ explains Giovann Attard, the Maltese-born executive chef of London’s Norma. ‘The Moors brought coriander, for instance – one of our famous dishes is a sausage made with garlic and coriander. We have prickly pear trees, cloves, cumin, and all these were brought in by the Arabs.’ Indeed, Arabic roots are found in many ingredients and dishes, place names and even the Maltese language, something they share with Sicily, a short trip north.
His own roots are firmly planted in the soil of Gozo, the second of Malta’s inhabited islands. More rural, it’s home to just 31,200 of the country’s 444,000 population, with the remainder residing on the far bigger main island (250 sq km to Gozo’s 67 sq km). ‘I was brought up in the west part of the island, the furthest you can get really, in Gharb,’ explains Giovann. ‘My father comes from a family of farmers, so we grew our own food – he still does. There were always sheep, and we’d make our own sheep’s cheese, ġbejna; we had bees for honey, chickens for eggs and meat. We grew up surrounded by our own produce – it was very normal to just go and get the eggs from the back garden for lunch.
‘Gharb itself is a very small village, with the church in the middle, surrounded by fields, and everybody knows everybody. The way we lived was similar to many across the island – Gozo is full of fields that just get handed down from generation to generation.’
Having the beautiful blue
Mediterranean on their doorstep,
Giovann’s family made the most of
it. ‘In summer, my mother would
take me, my siblings and cousin
to Qawra, where there’s a lagoon,
and we’d spend many hours there,
swimming and having picnics,
without a care in the world. We’d
also go to the Azure Window –
this giant natural rock arch in the
bluest of waters, sadly now
collapsed – and also to the Blue
Hole, which is like a tube cut deep
into the rock,’ he remembers.
Those picnics would no doubt
have been the work of his mother,
Frances. ‘My mum and my
grandmother, who lived very near,
were the two people who cooked
that I looked up to,’ says Giovann.
‘I think just watching them, without
knowing, was what got me into
cooking. My mum worked, so
when I was about 13 or 14, I’d
often cook something simple – just
salads or grilled fish – because I
wanted to have a meal ready for
when she came in. ‘That’s what I
like about cooking today – making
people happy,’ he continues.
‘When you cook for someone and
see the smile on their face, for me,
that’s what it’s all about.’ What put a smile on his own
face was his mum’s rabbit’s stew, a Maltese favourite, with lots of
variations, and his grandmother’s
pasta. ‘She’d make this ravioli filled
with the sheep’s cheese that we
made. It was so good and all
about using the ingredients we’d
made ourselves,’ he says.
Lampuki fish, also known as dorado, was – and still is – on the menu, not just in the Attard house, but across Malta. ‘It’s very popular in the summer,’ he says. ‘We’d make a pie stuffed with lampuki,or pan-fry it with flour to serve with a tomato and olive sauce. I do a version of that at Norma: grilled whole fish with tomato, caper berries, black olives and parsley.’
As a teenager, Attard took his
cooking skills from the home
kitchen to culinary school and
restaurants. ‘I worked at Pebbles
the coast in Marsalforn and, like a
lot of local restaurants, it was all
very Mediterranean – pastas,
pizzas, grilled whole fish. There was
a big glass cabinet with sea bream,
red snapper, rock fish on ice – just
caught and ready to cook.’
After a spell in Belgium as part of his cooking-school education, Giovann returned to Gozo, and the Kempinksi San Lawrenz, just to the south of Gharb, where a Sicilian head chef helped shape his culinary footprint further, before he moved to London 11 years ago.
That he heads up a Sicilian kitchen should come as little surprise. ‘Sicily is so close to Malta and it goes without saying its influence is there,’ he admits. ‘But the food of Malta is massive for me. I always relate to those flavours,and when I go into the kitchen at Norma, it’s like going into the kitchen at home. It’s the same ingredients, same styles, same ideas, it’s just how I cook.’
Naturally, Giovann is full of ideas when it comes to visiting his homeland. ‘You have to do both islands,’ he insists. ‘They’re very different – Gozo is much more relaxed, but there’s so much in Malta. On the main island, you’ve got St Julian’s, on the east coast, which is lovely and right by the sea, and then you’re into lots of fishing villages in the south, like Marsaxlokk, which has the best fish restaurants on the islands.
‘The Valetta waterfront is
beautiful, and Valetta itself is
unlike any other city. You see St
John’s Co-Cathedral, and it’s
just “wow” – it’s incredible
what the knights left us. The
streets go back to the Great
Siege, when they designed
them to look exactly the same
to confuse the invaders. There’s
just so much history – our
ancient temples are the oldest
in the world, older than the
pyramids and Stonehenge.
‘Across on the east coast you have Golden Bay, and there’s a hotel, Malta Golden Sands, right on the cliffs overlooking the beach – it’s a Radisson Blu radissonhotels.com – and it’s still so quiet out there.’ Quieter still is Mdina, back towards the Maltese hinterland. ‘Mdina is the “silent city”,’ explains Giovann. ‘It’s very closed up and you can’t go in by car. It’s a fortified hilltop city, but it’s really small – only about 250 people live there these days – and again, there’s lots of history.’
‘I’m not sure why the bread is so good – maybe it’s how it’s baked in wood-fired ovens, or still made by grandmothers’
When you cross to Gozo, the act itself is ‘like a breath of fresh air’ as, he says, you get on the ferry with a headache, ‘but the second those ferry doors open at the other end, it disappears.’ You can then, he suggests, make the short crossing to the island of Comino. ‘Nobody lives there really,’ he says, ‘but it’s got the Blue Lagoon and Crystal Lagoon and is really good for snorkelling and swimming, so it makes a lovely day trip.’ Giovann reels off more places to visit, from the set of the 1980 movie Popeye – ‘they’ve still got the wooden houses and everything’ – to the salt pans on the east coast of Gozo where you can still buy Maltese salt from street vendors. The red-sand beaches of Ramla Bay also get a nod, as does the natural valley oasis of Wied l-Għasri, one of his favourite ‘hidden gems’.
But perhaps best of all –
he is a chef, after all – is the
bread. ‘Ah, the Maltese
sourdough,’ he says. ‘It’s
literally to die for. I try to
avoid eating bread, but
honestly I can’t resist it. We
eat it with olive oil and rub
fresh tomatoes on it. I’m not
sure why it’s so good, it could
be how it’s baked in wood-fired
ovens or just that it’s still made
by very old grandmothers.
‘I think Malta is unique,’ he concludes. ‘It’s got influences from everywhere, but we have our own language, Maltese buildings are different – made from limestone – and our history goes back beyond Stonehenge. With our old cities, the palaces, the towers, the war shelters, the beaches, it’s very special and quite under-rated. When people from the UK look to Europe, they look to Greece, Italy or Spain, and Malta is always forgotten. But we’re here, a little hidden gem in the middle of the Mediterranean.
Kempinski Hotel San Lawrenz, Gozo
I’m biased because I used to work there, but it really is lovely – it’s surrounded by countryside, it’s close to the sea, the food is good. It’s got everything you want, so it’s just a great resort and place to be.
Ta Karolina Restaurant, Gozo
Right on the Xlendi waterfront, so close to the sea that if you tilt backwards in your chair you’ll be in it. It’s all very simple grilled fish, pastas, and cold white wines, enjoyed while overlooking the bay.
This restaurant in Marsalforn has been in the same family since it first opened in the Seventies. Once again, they serve quite simple Mediterranean flavours with that important sea view. Great pasta dishes, lots of fresh, local seafood (there are always daily specials) and, of course, rabbit strew is on the menu too.
On the waterfront near the Kalkara marina, this is an interesting Japanese and Mediterranean fusion – they call it Mediterrasian – so you have sushi and sashimi, but then also pasta, seafood and meat dishes.
Words by Alex Mead
This interview was taken from the July 2022 issue of Food and Travel Magazine. To subscribe today, click here
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