MALTA: As the sun sets on the horizon children come out of the sea and asks her parents for something to eat. It is the middle of summer and nothing is more appetising that a local flatbread known as ftira with tomatoes, tuna, olives, capers, basil and olive oil. You could say that’s the taste of Malta, the taste of an island in the middle of the Mediterranean.
This must be the most common ‘sandwich’ on the Mediterranean island and more often than not it is not the hobza tal-Malti (Maltese loaf) but rather the ftira typical of Malta that is used to quench the appetite after a summer swim.
Now, that sourdough flatbread or ftira has been classified as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list.
Local historian Noel Buttigieg, who took the lead in presenting the case to UNESCO knows the importance bread has held in local history. He has taken it upon himself to raise awareness and also help raise the quality of this Maltese bread.
“We choose the Maltese ftira and not the Maltese loaf of bread for a simple reason that the Maltese loaf has changed over the years while the Maltese ftira, despite change, has remained intrinsically the same. It is also an important leveller in society as it knows no economic, social or political boundaries,” Dr Buttigieg told Food and Wine Gazette.
The first reference to this Maltese bread dates back to at least the 16th century. “It used to be baked in the ovens of the Knights of St John in Valletta in the 16th century and it used to be called ‘sciacciata’ in Italian,” Dr Buttigieg told Food and Wine Gazette.
What makes this bread unique compared to other flatbreads in the Mediterranean is that these normally don’t have a rising process while the Maltese ftira, because it uses the same ingredients as a normal loaf, is stopped from rising and actually pinched to create a hole in the middle.
It was created out of necessity and the shape and form has remained the same. When the baker is shaping the dough to make this type of flatbread, the air is removed from the dough unlike for a normal loaf of bread. At a time when bakers did not have temperature control in their stone overs, they would cook the flatbread not to waste energy or wood because it needed high heat to cook and the cooking process was short. “While the traditional Maltese bread requires 60 to 100 minutes of cooking time, the ftira only takes 20 minutes at double the temperature.
Dr Buttigieg knows the importance of food today when it comes to tourism but he emphasis that the ftira is a perfect reflection of Malta. “If you are not someone interested in gastronomy and you are not travelling to eat sophisticated food, you can still get a taste of Malta with a ftira. In its simplicity, it is very rich both flavour wise but also culturally because it defines who the Maltese are.”
His recommendation is to have it stuffed in the most traditional manner with tomatoes, capers, pickled onions, olives and herbs. “The Maltese have always managed to do a lot with just a little. The ingredients in a Maltese ftira are a reflection of this. At its most traditional, the Maltese ftira is made with produce that is really poor and humble. These are ingredients that have been processed like capers that have been salted, onions that have been pickled and tomatoes that have been made into a paste (when tomatoes are not in season) and olives.”
Dr Buttigieg is trying to raise the bar when it comes to getting a taste of Malta even with a Maltese ftira eaten from a snack bar or kiosk. “This project is much bigger than the ftira. Take olives as an example. We should ensure that local produce is used throughout the process. Ultimately we need to help the farming community. In Malta we do not have mountains, forests or rivers and farmers are the only people that are really safeguarding our environment and landscape through cultivated fields,” he said.
Dr Buttigieg is worried that a lot of the local heritage linked to bakeries that appeared on the island at the time of the Knights of St John are disappearing. “Only in one village Qormi (with a population of around 15,000) there used to be over 50 artisanal bakeries 20 years ago, now we are down to 15,” he said.
Now that the ftira has been recognised as intangible cultural heritage of humanity Dr Buttigieg’s work is just starting. “This was just the first step in what I call a prologue. I would like to see a group of bread makers come together to take the product seriously. We need to find those that are willing to work to improve the quality. We also need to establish parameters. We do not want to stifle creativity but rather to recognise what constitutes a ‘ftira’.”
He knows that bread is also a subject of our memories and habits. “What we know about bread is what our grandparents have told us and what we have tasted but that’s not necessarily the reality. Today we are going back to wholemeal bread but that was how bread used to be in the past before white bread was created with lots of waste. So we are going back full circle,” he said.
In his research, Dr Buttigieg has found a contract which included the exact mix of wheat and flour that was used to make the ftira in the 17th century. And he has also come across scientific evidence of the name of wheat that was grown and used in Malta in the early 1800s. “We know where we can get these types of wheat from and we are looking at starting the process to bring this back to Malta,” he said.
“Work does not stop there. We need to look at the ftira as a process, what wheat is used, how it is milled, the fermentation process, how it is made. We need to experiment to be able to improve the product,” he said.
As a historian who has studied bread in the discourse of 18th century women in Malta, Dr Buttigieg says bread has always played an important role in history. “We have never heard of revolutions that started because of a wine shortage but when bread was missing, there has always been turmoil and huge political change,” he said.
“When it comes to bread, change started to happen in Malta after the Second World War. Before that, the Maltese could not really be creative because of shortages. But with just a little, they managed to create a lot. They managed to change the flavour of the bread just by using a knife to cut the dough in a particular way. From the same ingredients they could create something different,” he said.
Over the past few years, there has been a bit of a food revival in the small island of Malta. But the journey is only just starting.