Malta Diary 6: Abstinence Makes the Stomach Grow Fonder
With Carnival done and dusted (apparently this expression originates from the days when writing was in ink and had to be blotted to dry) it is now time to don sackcloth and be daubed with ashes for a 40-day stint of Lent that is finally thrown off for Easter Sunday.
Well, that was the way things were done many years ago when I was still a boy, a far cry from the general indifference that nowadays has weakened the will of the flesh. Lent was a time for absolute sobriety (well it certainly was in Malta and Gozo) with a regime of strictness and abstinence. Children were meticulously instructed not to laugh out loud, not to be jovial and not to make any noise. Infringements would lead to punishment – normally a good clip round the ear and some kind of deprivation for good measure.
I recall one particular occasion over 50 years ago when I was 16 and my family had relocated to living in London. It was Good Friday and there was a football match at Stamford Bridge. My late mother almost fainted in horror and had to sit down when I told her I was off to the Bridge to see it.
“What! But it’s Good Friday …” Peace was only restored when my late father intervened to tell her this was England and not Malta and when in Rome ….
Elderly women wore black clothing throughout the 40 days and many men donned a black armband or wore a black tie. Smoking in public (men only because a woman smoking in public in those days was regarded as being a loose woman) was frowned upon and a priest or a monk (Malta teemed with them) was duty-bound to intervene with a judicious comment of “have you no shame – it’s Lent”.
The kitchen and the stomach suffered most. Ash Wednesday was a day of strict fasting and abstinence with a blanket prohibition of meat and meat products together with anything sweet, including use of sugar. Gallons of black coffee were imbibed. This regime was also followed on Good Friday.
Over the remaining 38 days, different people adopted different fasting and abstinences, except on Fridays when in Roman Catholic Malta meat was still always strictly off the menu. Some people extended this meat abstention throughout Lent; others added Wednesdays to Fridays. Others still banned every kind of sugar, sugar products and sweetmeats for the whole of the 40 days.
As a consequence to all this disruption of the normal culinary cuisine, alternative menus were the order of the day. Families were then populously large and extended so pots of minestrone, piles of spaghetti with tomato sauce and massive loads of fresh bread and cheese filled the 40-day duration.
All of this I could stomach except for the salted cod known as “bakkalyaw” (as pronounced). Salt cod is dried, salted cod that needs to be re-hydrated and de-salted before use. It looks pretty unappetising – a bit like a dried-up leather shoe – but softens once rehydrated.
It’s extremely popular in Mediterranean countries (particularly Portugal, where it’s known as bacalhau), as well as in tropical countries, where it keeps well despite the hot temperatures. In some parts of Italy, salt cod is traditionally eaten on Christmas Eve; in France, it’s used as the basis for brandade. In Malta it was a Lenten ever-present, particularly on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Amongst the most popular were “prinjolata” (made from pine nuts), “karamelli” (made from carob pods), “kwarezimal” (based on ground almonds, flour, chocolate powder and lemon rind, baked in cylindrical shapes and sprinkled with flaked almonds). Much use was made of ground almonds in the form of biscuits and rusks sprinkled with sesame seeds.
These dessert alternatives remain popular today but much of the rest of austerity, fasting and abstinence are retained as a legacy by the elderly. For the younger generations it is business as usual with discos, week-end binges and party modes.