Take a look at our Events listings, any month, and you’ll find a regular stream of agricultural fairs. In the course of a year, we celebrate bread, pork, pumpkins, strawberries, milk and more! But while agricultural events are good crowd pullers (something to do on a Saturday evening with the kids; somewhere to munch a take-away), they do tell a story about Maltese farmers and the new-breed of entrepreneurs trying to revive our traditional foods and create innovative products. Jeanette Borg, who runs Merill Eco Tours, takes us behind the scenes of Malta’s farming heritage and produce, and talks of the products now being appreciated again by locals and visitors.
Q. The Maltese Islands are relatively barren and we’ve a harsh climate. Yet, our vegetable vans are brimming with local produce. How do we do it?
Climate is a key factor in the production of tasty fruits and vegetables. Maltese soils have a slightly high pH. This can be negative to some plant species but beneficial to others such as vines. Water management plays in important role too. In local terms “Saqwi” means having a source of water all year round, while “Baghli” means having irrigation only available during the winter months thanks to the season’s rain.
Unfortunately, traditional ways of using water in tune with our climate have changed due to the use of borehole water. Aquifers are the only source of natural water on the Maltese Islands and over-abstraction has not only reduced the quantity but also deteriorated the quality of water within them. Veggies and fruits are made of more than 98% water. Therefore, the more vegetables we produce the more water we need. In times past, people were wise…they used to plant trees and plants that need less water such as olives, carobs and figs, and base their diets on crops that require less water. We’ve seen a rise in chemical fertilisers and sprays in recent years, but as they’ve become more expensive, farmers are learning how to reduce reliance on them, if not do without them completely. Farmers are also more aware of the consequences of chemicals on nature and health.
Unfortunately, we lost a lot of our agricultural biodiversity (that is plant and animal species utilised for the production on food and fibres). Most of the seeds are imported nowadays. Luckily, some farmers still harvest and store seeds from year to year and they should be given incentives as they have precious mini seed/gene banks in their possession.
Q. What local food products does Malta excel in? Where do our strengths lie? Do we have unique food products that shout ‘Malta’!
Mediterranean fruits are one of the local foods Malta excels in. Citrus, carob, figs, olives are all trees well suited to our climate. Then, we’ve got other minor fruits that can be commercialised to increase profits in farmers pockets, such as the Small Malta June Pear…in Maltese, the “Bambinella”. There’s the success story of Bambinella being exported to the UK for Marks & Spencer’s. Malta also excels into products such as capers. The plants look lovely and their water requirements are ultra low…perfect for our situation.
Processing local products is the key element to how our agri industry should develop. Processing adds value to raw products. Local sun dried tomatoes, pickles and jams are just some examples that look and taste lovely.
Q. When you take visitors on your eco tours, what Maltese food products do they ask about most? What do they like best? What do they take home?
This depends on the season. If a particular fruit is in season, we feature it in our tours. Tourists and locals ask about traditional agriculture. Malta has a long history of agriculture and this is part of our heritage. We often stop next to old carob trees and relate the history of their cultivation, their positive effects on the environment and how the local people used to rely on such trees.
Q. Which local food products do we locals appreciate most?
Traditional Hobz biz-zejt with kunserva, olive oil, capers, and basil. Fresh herbs make all the difference. As to cooked food…rabbit remains on top of the list! [editor’s note: for a list of traditional dishes in Malta, click here.]
Q. Why is farming important to Malta, given our micro land mass and the small percentage of the population involved in agriculture.
Every farmer in the Maltese Islands is important. Apart from producing foodstuffs, we see farmers of service to us in other ways – they give a lot back in terms of services such as nature conservation…restoration of rubble walls, that are shape our landscape both if they are boundary or terrace retaining. Where land has been abandoned, rubble walls have deteriorated and soil has been lost to the sea. The conservation of agricultural biodiversity is also something many farmers contribute to.
Q. Which of our specialities would you like to see more of in the foodie line being produced in Malta?
For me, the most important aspect to retain and revive is our agricultural biodiversity. I spoke recently to a farmer and tasted some of his superb peaches. My immediate reaction was “these peaches must cost an eye…it’s just the beginning of the season and prices must be high”. He sadly sighed at me and told me “not when loads of peaches are being imported and sold as local peaches”. this is so unfair to our farmers and the local industry. The management involved in producing crops is intrinsic and having foreign fruits sold as local fruit is distorting the market and creating unfair competition.
And I’d like to see more products that were more common in the past.
Merill Eco Tours provides authentic experiences for small groups, using eco-friendly transport and bringing economic benefits to the rural communities whenever possible.