Anyone who thinks that nectar, ambrosia, and manna are the foods of the gods is way off the mark.
Nothing beats a ġenba torn off the side of a warm ħobża before one even leaves the bakery premises. This explains the trail of crumbs from the counter (or a plank resting on two soft drinks cases) and the door. In my day, when the bread was too hot to handle, Tal-Ħobża always had a supply of bits of cardboard torn off the mound of collapsed boxes collected expressly for this purpose. And the aroma inside the bakery would cling to the clothes and the hair… not that anyone complained.
It is a Semitic tradition to break bread with someone as a sign of welcome, and friendship. And no wonder. Our bread is nothing like the anaemic, oblong, spongy loaves bought for convenience rather than taste and texture. Indeed, Maltese bread is the best thing since even before sliced bread.
How could you honestly hope to mop up the gooey, garlicky mess at the bottom of the fenek fry-pan? Could you use anything else but tal-Malti, still hot from the bakery, to slather with butter and eat with ġbejniet tal-bżar? Would any other type of bread taste as good, spread with kunserva, drizzled with olive oil, and sprinkled liberally with freshly-crushed black pepper and Mediterranean sea-salt? Making a picnic lunch never was so easy – just hollow out a small bap, leaving just the shell, and stuff with olives, capers, tomatoes, raw onions, mint leaves, pepper, and canned tuna if you like it (I don’t) and take as a picnic lunch to the beach.
As in the case of puddings and pies, however, each household has its own ‘recipe’ for what goes inside a ħobża biż-żejt… tinned tuna, pickles, garlic, marinated vegetables, leeks, thinly-sliced cucumbers, grated carrots, capsicums…
Incidentally, if you can get bread dough from the baker, you will find that it makes the ideal pizza base.
The friable crust and soft crumb (this is the bieba as opposed to crumbs, which are the frak) make for an ideal marriage of textures and tastes… with one proviso: contrary to the sanitised breads that keep relatively fresh for up to three days, Maltese bread is best eaten on the day it is baked. And anyone who has bought ready-sliced Maltese bread, packaged inside a knotted plastic bag, knows that this is not the way to eat it, either.
Most areas are blessed with twice-daily bread deliveries, mostly from the Maltese equivalent of Bethlehem (“the house of bread”) – Qormi, which was also known as Casal Forno. This enables us to purchase ħobż that are never more than half a day old (it takes eight hours in total to produce a loaf of bread). You may, of course, opt for the unleavened ftira – which, halved horizontally, makes a delicious bruschetta.
Unless you intend to make speciality breads, the above means that buying a bread-making machine would probably be a waste of money. Bakers always leave a clump of dough from the day before, in order to start off the fermentation of the next day; however, machines always stipulate yeast as an ingredient – and the taste is never quite the same.
Bakers will tell you that the end result depends upon many variables – the type of flour and water used, the proportion of the ingredients, the temperature at which it is baked, as well as the type of oven. The dictum goes that the bigger the hole in a slice of bread, the better the quality.
Maltese bread, soaked in a mixture of milk and water, and squeezed out, forms the basis of pudina. To this, you add whatever you have in your larder in the way of vine fruit, dried and candied fruits, cocoa, and rum (or anisette or brandy or vermouth). Some people add sugar, desiccated coconut, butter, and an egg or two.
The mixture is placed in a buttered, floured dish and cooked at a low heat until it forms a crust, and a knife stuck into it comes out clean.
The smell, texture and taste of the Maltese ħobża are unique – ask any expat!