These little green gems, mini cassata made with almond paste and filled with sweet ricotta, are my son’s favourite Maltese sweet. I tell him that anything glowing vibrant green, red or yellow is likely to be full of nasty E numbers and I try, to no avail, to steer him towards the few healthy alternatives the cafe has on display.
But, we all need a treat sometimes. So, while he’s devouring the cassata all to quickly, I tell him about Malta’s culinary history.
Cassata is a fine example of the myriad foreign influences in Malta’s fare. It’s typical of Sicily, our nearest neighbour, but was introduced to Europe’s southernmost tips by the Moors. The Arabs knew the art of preserving food in hot climes, which is why candied peel is a key ingredient in Malta’s sweets.
The Arabs, who settled Malta from around 800 to the late 11th century, are thought to have introduced sorbets and semi-freddo (semi-frozen deserts of light sponge, ice cream and candied peel shaped in a domed mould) to Malta and Sicily. Their sharbat, made using mountain snow, probably evolved into what we know as sorbet today.
They also brought sugar cane to the islands. Which is why most Maltese deserts and pastries are strictly for those with a sweet tooth. Akin to cassata is an all-time favourite in Malta, kannoli, which is a heavy tube of crispy fried, sweet pastry filled with ricotta, and often peppered with candied fruit or chocolate chips (one for kids to avoid!). It’s a tradition here to take a box of kannoli to your host when you’re invited to lunch.
Another heart-stopping, fried delight are Mqaret, small packages of sweet pastry filled with a date mixture and served blisteringly hot and dripping in paper bags from roadside stalls. You’ll nearly always find mqaret hawkers at Valletta’s city gate near the bus terminus. As you step off the bus, you’ll be greeted by the sickly, sweet smell of mqaret mingling with diesel fumes. Far better then to try them at a restaurant. They are increasingly on the desert menus of finer establishments; served dry, light and crisp and with a swirl of creme fraiche. Perfection itself!
If you dining in a Maltese home, you’ll often be offered a slice of Helwa tat-Tork, a very sweet sugary mixture of crushed and whole almonds and another hark back to Arabic times.
A breeze through the desert chapter of 25 Years in Maltese Kitchen by Maltese celebrity cook Pippa Mattei, confirms that traditional family favourite sweets are packed with almonds, glacé cherries and candied peel, and include a good dose of sugar.
Where to treat yourself? Almost any elegant cafe in Valletta, mostly those with open-air seating, will have a selection of Maltese pastries and sweets. Cafe Cordina probably has the largest display. In Sliema, the main ‘Strand’ seafront has four or five cafes in a row, all with counter displays of sweets. But, if you’re after a British-style sponge cake or an American-style cheesecake, you’d best head for Fontanella on the bastions of Mdina. Fontanella cakes are also sold in other cafes, so look out for them on the menus.
Just enjoy the moment in the mouth, and forget about the lifetime on the hips!
Photo: Gege Gatt