A Maltese restaurant outside Maltese shores is not a common sight. And there is a reason. The island is small and few Maltese chefs have ventured out of Malta to cook Maltese-style cuisine in their own restaurants. Many Maltese chefs have gone abroad to train but most return to work on the island.
It is even more unusual when that cuisine is replicated by a Belgian chef but there is a reason for this. Since 2011, Maarten Van Steen and Anna Vella Bardon have been serving Mediterranean style food with a Maltese twist at their restaurant Villa Bardon in Sluizeken, Gent.
“It was always our dream to open a restaurant and Gent was a great location. As a chef I studied in the Flemish city of Bruges and was classically trained. Then I went to Malta for two years, (my wife Anna is from Malta) and it was here that I got to know Maltese food and Mediterranean culture,” he tells Food and Wine Gazette.
He loved the freshness of the fish and the purity of the flavours. “There are things which I obviously miss when I am trying to recreate Maltese dishes. The fish is different. In Malta you get fish so fresh that it goes from the sea to your plate. I can still get good fish here but it is not the same as getting it fresh out of the sea. Even when you are at the seaside, in Belgium, the fish is different but when you are inland and the produce has to travel kilometres you do not get the same feeling,” Maarten says.
“In terms of produce, fresh fish, is the only thing that I miss from the time when I was living and working in Malta,” he tells me.
Do you feel any pressure to cook Maltese dishes, I ask him, especially given the fact that you are in a way representing Malta. “I think it is pretty cool to be the only restaurant of its kind in Belgium. It is special for us also because Anna is from Malta. I don’t feel pressure even when we get Maltese people, who mainly come from Brussels specifically to eat at our restaurant. It is great to be recreating Maltese dishes because that is unique,” he says.
I ask him whether Maltese cuisine, which can be rustic at times, works well in the restaurant. “Our style is home cooking. We try to recreate a home experience. We want people to feel relaxed at the restaurant. We like them to feel as if they have gone to a friend’s house and Maltese cuisine fits that style,” he said.
What is most important for Maarten is to ensure that the Maltese dishes are served well since they are representing Malta. “Our clients know that the restaurant is Maltese because Anna, who speaks Flemish, is front of house and explains to them when we are serving Maltese dishes. Our aim is to make sure that they get a good impression which makes them want to go and visit the island. In a way we are promoting Malta with our cooking,” he tells me.
Among the Maltese dishes he has served are bigilla, Maltese style rabbit, swordfish, bragioli (stuffed beef olives), stuffed courgettes, kapunata (a Maltese version of ratatouille) and even stuffed artichokes. At the restaurant, you are also likely to be served Maltese cheeselets known as gbejniet, Maltese wine as well as a Maltese soft-drink called Kinnie.
Maarten also makes his own Maltese sausage and wants to make his own cheese. “One of our forthcoming projects is to make our own ricotta which will enable us to recreate the Maltese cheeselets. I would also love to serve Maltese bread in our restaurant. We have tried to get our hands on a Maltese mother dough to make Maltese bread here but have not had any luck yet in Malta with a baker who would either give us or sell us his mother dough. But it is something we are working on and if we are lucky we will be able to serve Maltese bread.”
Is there a product that you have wanted to use but cannot find, I ask him. Maarten says he would love to be able to work with fresh lampuki (a typical Maltese fish also known as a dolphin fish). “I’ve tried to get it over to Belgium from Malta and have called fishmongers. It is possible to transport it but it is too expensive and would be counter-productive. It would not make sense to serve it in the restaurant because we want to sell food at a fair price,” he tells me.
I’ve also tried to make spaghetti with rizzi (sea urchins) but it is not the same as when you make it in Malta. “Here I am not able to find fresh sea-urchins and hence the dish can never be the same. In Malta, you buy the sea urchins fresh from the same day and they are not preserved. All you need is to toss it in the pasta and tastes of the sea. If I am not 100 per cent satisfied, I prefer not to serve something, ” Maarten said.
“My aim is to make good food. It does not need to be technical but it needs to be good. That is the most important criteria for me. I like food that is good that you want to eat it again and again. In a way it is simple food but delicious.”