Malta Diary Hands off our daily bread!
The fluid and unstable situation in nearby Libya is a threat; ISIS and continued terrorism are threats; the situation in The Ukraine and the Russian menace are threats; continued boatloads of illegal immigrants from the North African shore are great threats.
However, all of these pale into marginal insignificance against the latest threat now facing Malta and Gozo.
Exercising his medical expertise and wisdom and with a view to lifestyle and health improvement, Malta’s Parliamentary Secretary for Health, medical specialist Chris Fearne this week announced the Government would be carrying out intensive research into the quantity of salt content going into the daily Maltese loaf of bread with a view to stipulating a reduction.
He based his announcement on statistics that almost 50% of the Maltese and Gozitan population aged over 70 suffer from high blood pressure whilst 23% of the adult population suffer the same symptoms, both classed as being very much on the high side.
Salt is seen as a major contributant and whilst Mr Fearne conceded the difficulty of eliminating salt from foodstuffs completely he contended that at least it should not be added to. Maltese bread is classed as the major staple consumption in the Maltese diet. The Government plans to meet bakers and press for reduction.
Unfortunately, besides adding to the blood pressure statistics, it is also highly responsible for obesity.
Now then, if you REALLY, REALLY want to make a Maltese cross, tamper with the bread which is uniquely made in Malta in a tradition that goes back centuries. The general public outrage and umbrage instantly underlined the outburst of protests that continue to reverberate throughout the islands.
In the bread-manufacturing market in Malta, all roads lead to Qormi, where most bakeries originated since the Middle Ages time of the Knights of St John. They now proliferate throughout the islands, but the people of Qormi are still known as “the noon people” even though the origins were 500 years ago and it’s now 2015.
The explanation is logical. Bakery bread products had very early morning deliveries – not for breakfast which was relatively unknown until the arrival of the British early in the 19th century – but because wives needed the product to prepare a portable lunch for their husbands and sons to take with them to work, mostly in the fields and on construction work, to make mid-morning snacks for their children and have enough bread for lunch and then dinner.
To meet this demand bakers kept unearthly hours, sleeping throughout the afternoons and early evenings and baking throughout the night to ensure morning sale from their bakeries and deliveries on donkey-drawn carts and nowadays of course commercial vans. Hence the popular spread of the “noon people” panhandle, on the logic that by noon the Qormi inhabitants would be starting their night!
Much of this has of course changed now, but old habits die hard and bread remains a popular, relatively inexpensive staple foodstuff because it is appetising and filling. In the past it was also an important stomach-appeaser for the poor and not-so-wealthy, besides also being perceived as symbolising the Christian Holy Eucharist when Jesus Christ broke and distributed bread to his disciples.
HOWEVER, now, here’s the rub. The way to a Maltese heart is through the palate and the stomach and the main, majority appeaser that fulfils this function is the traditional “hobza” (fresh bread) “biz-zejt” (spread with olive oil) “u tadam” (and spread with fresh tomatoes) and generous sprinklings of “bzarr” (pepper) “u melh” (and salt). The crustiness and freshness of the bread are essential.
Additions are made by including various toppings like fresh olives, fresh basil, fresh mint, canned tuna, anchovies, goat-milk cheeselettes, capers etc.
Those with culinary experience naturally recognise this as also being the basis for Italian bruschetta and the world-famous Pizza Margherita and thus instantly recognisable in this central part of the Mediterranean.
Maltese migrants have tried to recreate their much-loved bread in places like Australia and Canada and I have tasted the recreations but they are not even remotely a comparison. Bakers in Malta claim the difference is in the method, the type of flour and the type of water.
Public debate rages but the general message is very loud and very clear – hands off our daily bread!
The bakers have now found an unlikely champion of their cause to retain the composition of bread as it is.
No less than august and internationally-known personality and prime opera tenor Joseph Calleja – who is also Malta’s honorary International Cultural Ambassador – has waded into the controversy and his message is equally loud and clear – hands off our daily bread!
Writing in his blog, Calleja pleaded with the authorities to let things stand as they are.
“One thing which is pretty unique in Maltese cuisine is our bread. It’s really quite extraordinary especially when eaten still warm with a table spoon of olive oil, some fresh Maltese tomatoes, capers and tuna or what many call “hobz biz–zejt.” Of all and everything in Maltese cuisine our bread is the one thing that has some international recognition of really being one of the tastiest sour dough around. The Puglia loaf comes close but doesn’t make the grade,”
He urged the Government to turn its attention to what he termed as “the disgusting fast food restaurants” and many other harmful sources in the compilation of blood pressure.
“Surely the road to take here is to indeed protect the artisanal making of our Maltese bread and to remind the populace, through education, that moderation and a varied diet is the key to good health. There are plenty bigger fish to fry than our innocuous “hobza”…”, concluded Calleja.
Many, many thousands (including myself) may certainly not match Joseph Calleja in his vocal magnificence but we are certainly in chorus with his line of thinking on this matter.