Malta Diary Entering the Lenten period – a time for sackcloth and ashes? It used to be – but no longer … memories of the past
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Today is Ash Wednesday. Carnival activities of boisterous merriment came to an abrupt end at midnight last night and the dawn may have brought a bright and sunny day, or it may be sombre, dull and cloudy. But, it’s 2020 and life will go on as usual.
The streets will be congested with traffic; bars, restaurants, Gentlemen’s Clubs and cinemas will be open as usual, music will blare from everywhere and people will scream, shout, laugh and cry as normal.
Yet, cast your mind back 70 or so years when I was still a four-year-old boy. It’s Ash Wednesday. If the dawn brings clouds, darkness and rain, your elders would say God is highlighting the sobriety of the day to herald 40 days of Lenten sacrifice and sorrow. If the day is sunny and radiant – they would say nothing.
Men would wear black ties and black arm bands, would refrain from smoking in public and sport a face of sombre sobriety. Most bars would refuse to serve alcohol and serve only tea and coffee and the majority would be closed anyway.
Women would wear lengthy dark clothing. In those days, women that smoked in public were regarded to have the status of a prostitute (in polite circles referred to as a barmaid), a woman of very shallow morals.
Children would have to remain sullen faced, not shout or make noise and even the merest of slightest smiles – let alone a guffaw – would earn one a severe clout around the ears and a brutal admonition this was a day of sadness and reflection and not a day of merriment and light heartedness and everybody should be concentrating on the tragedy of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
Cinemas and any places of any kind of entertainment would be closed. In those days homes had cable radio and any kind of light music or entertainment was out of the question, replaced by funeral marches and dreary requiems.
In those days too, apartments and flats were virtually unknown; people lived in houses, small and poor for the majority, palatial and resplendent for the rich. Each house had a wooden front door and then a glass-panelled ‘ante-porta’, a second counter door. The front door would be kept slightly ajar for the whole of the 40 days of Lent, with a strip of black cloth of mourning stretched over the wooden front door.
The order of the day was fasting and abstinence, strictly enforced, eased by countless cups of coffee (no sugar of course!) and glasses of water. Children were strictly prohibited from eating any kind of sweets.
However, when it came to lunch and dinner – now that was a different regime!
Meat was generally avoided as being opulent and therefore subject to abstinence and few could afford it anyway. Throughout the year eating meat was prohibited on a Fridays according to the then Roman Catholic rite, but during Lent this was extended to Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
In its stead a variety of vegetable and fish dishes dominated the table.
One of these was the “soppa tal-armla”, a ‘widow’s soup’, based on the understanding that once widowed, a married woman would face severe financial deprivation. This was a vegetable soup laced with goat cheeselettes – and it was, and is, delicious, particularly with chunks of fresh Maltese bread and lots of pepper.
Today, it is regarded as a delicacy and NOT a plate for the poor. How times have changed!
There were other various concoctions of vegetable soups, plenty of minestrone, a plate of fresh broad beans blended and cooked with couscous and sprinkled with olive oil and Jerusalem artichokes stuffed with bread crumbs, tuna fish, anchovies, onions, garlic and loads of parsley, accompanied by a plate of boiled grey snails laced with further lashings of garlic, doused with olive oil and sprinkled with parsley and modest doses of chilli pepper.
Smoked and soused herrings were also highly popular, as well as strips of dried cod, anchovy and peas pies, ricotta pies and of course, the Lenten bread ‘ftira’ in abundant supply.
These dishes do survive today, mainly among the elderly but with many women working and the hectic pace of modern life it’s so much easier to buy and heat bags of frozen cod and chips and prepare all in the micro in five minutes!
Those addicted to sweets were also highly catered for with a variety of Lenten pastries, including deep fried honey fritters, the Lenten cakes ‘kwarezimal’ made of crushed almonds, tubes of carob sweets (‘karamelli’) and of course, the highly traditional hot cross buns.
Naturally, the Mediterranean stomach had to undergo fasting and abstinence – but this also had to be highly compensated.
Lenten sobriety was maintained throughout the 40 days and the Ash Wednesday sense of sorrow and tragedy came back in strong doses for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.
Today in 2020, many of these are regarded as relics of the past, quaint traditions our grandparents had to suffer …
“It’s either raw or burnt to cinders”
Describing the two extremes of a situation.