Henry David Thoreau once wrote that one must maintain a little bit of summer even in the middle of winter. You cannot really fault him with that.
But there is also the other side to summer, the one where all good intentions go to waste. Finding a writing routine is always a priority for me but summer has a way of disrupting that routine. Not that I am complaining.
Writing therefore ended up on the back burner for various reasons. Loss of routine was one of them but also because without realising the previous months had taken their toll when it came to fatigue.
Every summer starts with the intention of finding a routine during holidays. But despite all the good intentions, every summer that routine makes way for a certain amount of spontaneity that makes writing close to impossible.
Working from home, the lockdown, stress, homeschooling and no break since pretty much Christmas meant there was a level of fatigue that had accumulated which I was not even aware of. How did I notice? Because even reading, which is normally the last brick to fall, also went on the back burner over the summer days.
So what was I up to?
Apart from the swimming on a daily basis, there were visits to restaurants, both in Belgium and in Malta as well as visits to two very small boutique wineries worth discovering on the Maltese islands.
There was of course lots of cooking and time for trips down memory lane as well as time with family and friends.
Post lockdown dining
Discussion around where to find the best pizzas in Italy and outside Italy are always interesting. You could say that Brussels has also, over the past few years, experienced a significant improvement in the quality of pizza. You could say the same thing about coffee. There is a story to be written there. Just before the lockdown, I was searching for the best pizzerias in the Belgian capital. There had been visits to La Piola, Basils, Pasta Madre, Nona, La Pizza e Bella. There are others still I’d like to try but more about that in another post.
The first place I visited after the lockdown with friends was Basils and the pizzas that evening were nothing short of spectacular. Maybe it was the fact that takeout pizza is not the same as eating a pizza in a pizzeria, maybe it was the long wait for a proper pizza. But what’s for sure is that nothing beats a good pizza for comfort food.
Before leaving for Malta we did visit Bozar Restaurant (as solid as ever even after the lockdown and fresh from the chef’s experience with Casse Croute by Karen Torosyan), L’Air du Temps and Chambrée Séparée. You will be able to read about the latter two experiences in the coming days.
At L’Air du Temps, you could see the impact of a rested Sang Hoon Degeimbre. Nature and the garden were very much in evidence and central throughout the experience. I’ve eaten there many times before. This was without doubt the best meal there topped with the experience of the Bar a Quilles, a winebar in the middle of the restaurant garden.
On the other hand, at Kobe Desramaults’ restaurant in Gent it was evident that Kobe was perfectly in his element. He knows the restaurant will close in December, he is mentally prepared for that though he still does not know what the future holds for him but that means he is cooking without any pressure and this was very visible during the dinner. Kobe at his very best.
With chef Matthieu Beaudart, I visited Bar Alberte in Gent. The young chef worked with Matthieu before heading to some top restaurants around the world. It is the kind of place you wish was in your neighbourhood.
Back to Malta
It was time to leave for Malta. Excitement was higher than usual because with the advent of the Michelin guide in the Mediterranean island, there is a sense of lots of things happening despite the fact that the lockdown and closure of restaurants led to a decrease in momentum.
Alas, there was no time to visit all the places that I wanted to visit but of those I visited, there are a few worth mentioning here. At Tartarun, in the fishing village of Marsaxlokk I had the best fish meal on the island in a very long time. The Schiavone family have been running this restaurant for many years now and young chef James Schiavone has started to experiment with smoking and preserving fish. There were many dishes worth mentioning including the ‘fish charcuterie’ platter but one stood out, the carbonara made with swordfish guanciale. If you don’t find it on the menu, ask for it. It is really worth it.
Then there is Briju, the brainwave of young chef Rafel Sammut who has taken humble Maltese ingredients and shown what can be done in the face of adversity . Because the reality with Maltese produce is that when there is quality there is no abundance and variety and hence the need for chefs to work with a lot of imported ingredients. Among the star dishes were the local pecorino and tomato pie (torta tal-hassu) and local beef ragu agnolotti with a local pecorino emulsion. As the chef himself said, there is not much Maltese cheese, so he makes as much use of it as possible.
One new restaurant entry really worth watching is Rebekah’s which was recently taken over by chef Andrew Vella. The chef has a really interesting CV having worked in some of the top spots in Malta. He also worked for over 18 months at two Michelin starred Brussels restaurant Sea Grill by Yves Mattagne where he learnt how to work with fish. That was very much in evidence at a really good dinner in this restaurant in Mellieha in the north of the island of Malta. The scallop ceviche with prickly pear (which are replaced by the local lampuki (dolphin fish or mani mahi) when the fish is in season from late August and the swordfish to mention just two dishes were exceptional. Definitely one to watch.
On a crossing to the island of Gozo, I went to Tmun, Mgarr. There chef Paul Buttigieg continues to be steady in what he does. The katsoubushi cured local fish and the grain tartare with dehydrated raspberries were exceptional.
In Malta, I also visited two boutique wineries with completely different approaches. One is Ta’ Betta and the other is Markus Divinus. Both are worthy of a visit on the island and prove that exceptional quality can be attained in the right hands. You will read more about these wineries in the coming days.
There was ample time for home cooking. And given the proximity to the sea and to really good fish shops, fish and seafood figured very often in the cooking.
There were two dishes I was particularly fond of this summer. One was a twist on Niko Romito’s watermelon with tomato and olives and the other a pasta dish by Mauro Uliassi which is with bottarga (fish roe) and pistacchio.
I also preserved tuna and made a pasta dish with raw tomato sauce and preserved tuna which was really a taste of summer on a plate.
That’s what you get when fish is in abundance and cheap.