MALTA DIARY: What’s on the menu for a Maltese Easter?
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Since my distant past, nevertheless historically, actually the recent past (that is within the last 50 years), the whole of the Lent and Easter period in Malta and Gozo has drastically changed to be less solemn, less demanding and not so dogmatic.
In my boyhood, the frolics, frivolities and foibles of Carnival came to an end at midnight on Shrove Tuesday and the dawn of Ash Wednesday marked 40 solid days of fasting, abstinence and extreme solemnity that increased as Good Friday drew nearer and nearer.
Churches clothed their fineries in strips of mauve cloth and all statues were covered up. The majority abstained from eating meat on Wednesdays and Fridays and many fasted throughout the 40 days on a piece of toast in the morning, lashings of black sugar-less coffee, a decent lunch, more coffee and more toast in the evening.
Many too gave up any form of sweetmeats like chocolate, cakes, creams, sweets and anything that contained sugar, including teas and coffees.
Good Friday itself was treated like the Final Day of Judgement. Absolute quiet reigned everywhere and the only permitted musical sound was that of brass bands playing funeral marches over the domestically-piped Rediffusion system.
All cinemas and places of entertainment closed down for the day as well as for Holy Saturday. Juke boxes in bars and taverns were switched off – even those on waterfronts catering for British sailors and soldiers. Any kind of frivolity or raucous laughter was heavily frowned upon. Noisy children were roundly chastised and given a good clip round the ear for being “disrespectful on this day of sorrow” as well as being threatened with a future of the burning fires of Hell facing them.
Children being children, the threats held good momentarily but were soon forgotten …
Well-to-do men and those considering themselves as being “scholarly” wore black ties and women wore sombre coloured clothing. A show of gaudy-coloured clothing or any exposure of bare flesh was enough to earn the woman a reputation of being a “brazen-faced harlot”.
Men refrained from smoking in public and front doors were left slightly ajar and adorned with strips of black mourning cloth as a sign of respect. All flags were flown at half-mast.
On Easter Day the scenes changed dramatically. Church bells pealed crazily, off came the mauve cloth and Resurrection Parades held almost everywhere accompanied by brass bands playing swinging marches – and of course, there was food, lashings of it!
Some of these traits have remained today; many others cast aside. However, one of the features that has remained traditional is that of Lent and Easter food and sweetmeats of the following preparation.
These were sticks of solidified carob syrup. The carob fruit is naturally sweet and therefore there was no need to add artificial sugar and was classed as permissible without “breaking” the Lent abstinence code.
These are made of almonds, cinnamon, sifted flour, honey and various citrus peels, mixed, rounded into small loaves and baked and then topped with pistachios, almonds and grated orange and lemon peel.
On Easter Day, every child expected to be given a figolla (usually then devoured by adults!) This was a Sicilian export and consists of sifted flour mixed with marzipan, rose water, butter and castor sugar.
The paste is set in moulds, usually fish-shaped, or doll-shaped as well as a variety of animal forms i.e. rabbits, elephants or quite often heart-shaped.
When cooled, the figolla is then covered with icing decorations and normally included an icing sugar Cross.
BAKED FRESH LAMB WITH ROAST POTATOES
This is the traditional Easter Lunch dish, well seasoned with onions, garlic, pepper, salt, to which peas and carrots are added and the whole topped with lashings of roast potatoes and roasted and then accompanied by massive chunks of fresh bread.
During meat abstinence days baked anchovy pies are popular as well as ricotta pies and naturally side dishes of snails, anchovies and tuna fish. Stewed, dried cod is also highly popular.
Easter eggs were gradually introduced through British-US sources, rare at first but now extremely popular too but certainly not traditional
“If you cut off a pig’s tail, it will still remain a pig”
This is the equivalent of a leopard never changes its spots. Circumstances and appearances may change, but the basic character remains as it always was.