Foodie road trip in Malta
Looking for a Mediterranean trip with a difference? Read our guide to Malta to learn about the best places to eat, drink and stay while you're there
Looking for what to do in Malta? There's plenty for foodies on Malta. Here are the best restaurants in Malta including Valletta restaurants and Gozo restaurants...
Malta is the largest island in a tiny archipelago in the southern Mediterranean. Its nearest neighbour is Sicily. Most of Malta's inhabitants live in the densely populated south, while the north is a patchwork of terraced fields, rows of vines and olive trees threaded with giant prickly pears, carob, almond and fig trees, the cliff-tops peppered with caper bushes. Gozo, a 25-minute ferry ride away, is its sleepy sister island, said to be Homer’s mythical Isle of Ogygia where the nymph Calypso kept Odysseus captive.
The Greeks and the Romans were not the only ones to wash up on these honey-hued shores. The archipelago is on the historic trading route between North Africa and Europe. Over the centuries Malta has been occupied by the Sicilians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Ottoman Turks, the Knights of St John, the French and the British, only gaining independence in 1964.
St Paul was shipwrecked here in 60 AD, then the Arabs landed, converting the islands to Islam before the Normans rocked up and re-Christianised everyone. Today it’s 95% Roman Catholic – although the word for God is still Allah. Villages sometimes have as many as three churches and saints that are supported with the fervour of football teams. Each saint’s day is celebrated with a riotous village festa with fireworks and feasting. Many villages also have food festivals and traditional specialities (Qormi is known for its bread, Kirkop for ricotta…). In Mgarr there’s a strawberry festival each year, in Zejtun an olive oil festival. Most people are bilingual, speaking Maltese (an Arabic dialect written in Latin form) and English. Malta is the very definition of a melting pot.
The island’s chequered history infuses both its culture and cuisine, which is Mediterranean in style with a sprinkling of North African seasoning. Rabbit stew is the national dish (the one-pot cooking is down to the Arab influence) while seafood is, of course, on most menus: lampuki (mahi mahi) pie, is a traditional favourite, as is aljotta, a garlicky fish soup. The fishing village of Marsaxlokk has a picturesque harbour, a vibrant open-air fish market each Sunday and vividly painted fishing boats called luzzu, an eye painted each side of the bow to protect the fishermen from evil spirits.
It’s an intoxicating mix – and one being celebrated by a new gastro trail (maltauk.com/maltasgastrotrail). As well as the beekeeping experience, highlights of the trail include cheesemaking with a goat farmer on Gozo, olive oil tasting on a traditional estate and winery visits. It also includes a roll call of some of the best local restaurants.
On Malta they harvest honey three times a year: in spring a carpet of wildflowers and orange blossoms produces a delicate, floral honey; in summer it’s wild thyme’s turn; while the winter harvest produces a dark, intense carob flower honey. Chewing on a chunk of honeycomb, the honey is almost toffee-tinged. There’s evidence that the Phoenicians created stone apiaries on the island (reputedly the oldest apiary in the world is in the village of Xemxija), while the Greek name for the island, Melite, is derived from ‘meliz’, the word for honey.
What to do in Malta for foodies
San Niklaw Estate
At San Niklaw, an 18th-century wine and olive oil estate that’s been in John Cauchi’s family for generations, I taste a vermentino (facebook.com/SanNiklawEstateMalta). John is the island’s only paediatric surgeon but he has been making wine in his spare time since 2004 and it’s now stocked in many of the island’s best restaurants. He also has plans to open a boutique hotel in an old farmhouse on his 10-hectare estate.
There’s no restaurant but you can book a private lunch or dinner with a wine tasting. At the stove is Steve de Domenico from Rocksalt, a restaurant in Sliema (shoprocksalt.com). The wine is matched with a disc of softly flaked halibut with textures of dill and mussel velouté, topped with salty roe. The vermentinos I’ve tasted elsewhere on the island have been light and floral – and a little thin. John’s is a revelation. “This is truer to the grape’s characteristics,” he says. It’s a 2015 vintage, greenish gold and so full-bodied you can almost chew it.
Villa Bologna is a blowsy baroque confection built in 1745. There are pastel-painted bee hives in the grounds. Owner Ray Scibberas is working to establish a PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) for Maltese honey. The island’s unique flora means it’s also possible to create a pollen profile for each honey. You can extract the DNA from the pollen in the honey and narrow it down to a particular village.
The fact that the city of Valletta is one of this year’s European Capitals of Culture only makes the island a more appetising prospect. Valletta was founded in 1565 by Jean Parisot de la Valette, the Grand Master of the Order of Knights of St John of Jerusalem. This citadel, towering over the magnificent natural harbour, is a golden vision of 18th-century architecture, the distinctive galleria casement windows an Instagrammer’s dream. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is also home to St John’s Co-Cathedral, housing the marble tombs of more than 400 knights. From the Upper Barrakka Gardens you can gaze over the water to the ‘Three Cities’ of Senglea, Vittoriosa and Cospicua, and to Fort Ricasoli where much of the Hollywood blockbuster Gladiator was shot.
Notably absent from the menu is rabbit – which is given the gourmet treatment at another new gastronomic hot spot, Noni in Valletta: a delicate rabbit liver parfait with fig chutney and compressed strawberries. White bean velouté with pickled mushrooms and sunflower seeds also deserves a shout out, the tanginess of the mushrooms cutting through the velouté’s creamy richness. Slow-cooked octopus tagine with giant couscous and marjoram oil also has the wow factor, the curled pink-purple tentacles intact and tender in a powerful black olive sauce.
Valletta might be Malta’s current capital but that honour originally went to the hilltop citadel, Mdina. After an earthquake in 1693 many of the medieval buildings were destroyed and rebuilt in the baroque style and now, with only 300 inhabitants, it’s known as the silent city. (Fans of Game of Thrones will recognise it as King’s Landing.)
Crystal Palace, Mdina
Just outside the fortified walls there’s another spot on the gastro trail, the Crystal Palace, a popular hole-in-the-wall haunt packed with locals queuing up for the island’s traditional hot breakfast snack, pastizzi – flaky puff pastry pasties oozing with moreish mashed peas or creamy ricotta.
Triq San Pawl; 00 356 2145 3323
Best restaurants on Gozo
Gozo, Malta’s second island, might not be everyone’s idea of a food destination. It keeps its secrets. But there’s great cooking here if you know where to look.
On Gozo, it turns out there’s yet more to thank the Romans for. The Qbajjar saltpans were carved out of the rock by the water’s edge, the salt originally used to preserve food. They have been tended by Emanuel Cini’s family for five generations. From May to August, seawater is collected in the pools, left to evaporate and the mineral-rich salt left behind raked, bagged and sold at a roadside stall.
A field-to-fork farm and eatery. Rikardu Zammit offers milking demonstrations on his small sheep and goat farm, followed by a cheese-making demo at Ta’ Rikardu in the old citadel in Victoria. The creamy fresh cheese gbejniet is a deliciously tempting local delicacy
4 Fosos Street; 00 356 2155 5953
A rustic restaurant dishing up local specialities. At Ta’ Philip the star of a belt-busting lunch (zero food miles is the aim) is the hedgerow-heady nettle ravioli.
an agro-tourism vineyard, olive grove and artisan food producer. It is owner Philip Spiteri’s brother, Joseph, meanwhile, who owns Ta’ Mena winery nearby. Ta’ Mena is a 25-hectare estate producing typical Gozitan specialities such as kunserva helwa (a sweet, intense sun-dried tomato paste), kunserva mielha (salty tomato paste), carob syrup, honey, olive oil and, of course, wine. These islands have two indigenous grape varietals, gellewza and ghirghentina, but they are mainly used in blends.
Owner Tony Grech is one of the best cooks on the island. His knowledge and passion for local food is inspiring and his signature rabbit dish – very local, very popular – is outstanding, moist, rich and packed with bay. Or go off-menu and ask him to make you kofta, a spiced goats’ cheese dish of extraordinary subtlety and depth.
The Gleneagles bar, on the harbour in Mgarr, has been here since the 18th century. Run now by brothers Tony and Sammy, it’s a proper fishermen’s dive that’s as honest and salty as you’d hope, and Tony makes a fine negroni. Sit on the balcony, drink, and dream of ships gone by.
In the village of Nadur, this bakery reveals something of the heart of Gozo food (Triq Tal Hanaq; 00 356 21 55 2342). Its bread oven is a working antique, a relic of the 19th century that turns out excellent wood-fired pizza, local savory cheesecake and great bread. This is old-school cooking that survives purely because of its quality. Order in advance as it sells out quickly.
Where to stay on Malta
Cugó Gran Macina Grand Harbour, Senglea
In Senglea, the place to stay is the recently opened Cugó Gran Macina Grand Harbour. This luxurious 21-suite design hotel is in a renovated 16th-century building on the regenerated waterfront, set against towering fortress walls. The name is taken from the black steel crane that once winched cargo from ships in the harbour. Maltese architect Edwin Mintoff coordinated the dramatic conversion while the sleek interior design was orchestrated by Milanese firm DAAA Haus.
The rooms all have harbour views, some with balconies, others with beds on suspended mezzanines cordoned off by glass balustrades. Design-wise, think polished concrete floors, vaulted stone ceilings, lacquered raw steel, Carrara marble and locally commissioned artworks by Victor Agius.
The hotel also has a gourmet restaurant (plus a rooftop pool) – Hammett’s Macina fronted by chef Chris Hammett. Here, a seven-course tasting menu showcases the island’s diverse culinary influences. Sea bass ceviche with falafel, cucumber, mint and yogurt mousse is a nod to its Arab heritage, as is chermoula-dressed grilled quail with freekeh tabbouleh. Wild amberjack carpaccio with lime mayo, horseradish and pea purée is feather light while the organic risotto with truffle butter, mushrooms and rosemary whisks diners back onto Mediterranean territory.
For more information see maltauk.com.
Words: Lucy Gillmore and Kay Plunkett-Hogge. Follow Lucy on Instagram and Twitter @lucygillmore.
Photographs: alamy, getty