Franklin Mamo recalls growing up in 1980s Malta with import restrictions that meant cheese was restricted to industrial grade cheddar, pecorino, edam and gorgonzola. He asks if it is time for He for Maltese producers to leave the comfort zone and produce good artisanal cheese.
As part of the war effort in WWII the British government centralised the production cheddar, a policy which persisted during the peacetime years of rationing.
Even if you believe that everything is permissible in love and war, you’d have to admit that – foodwise – there’s nothing that can be said of the measure that was positive. The policy killed off thousands of small producers (to the point where nowadays no cheddar is produced in the town of Cheddar) and bequeathed on popular eating culture that yellow slab of fat called “Government cheddar”.
I grew up in 1980s Malta. Import restrictions meant that while the skies were clear of Luftwaffe planes, on our tables the change was mostly of degree not of kind. Cheese options included industrial-grade cheddar, industrial-grade pecorino (plain or with peppercorns), industrial-grade edam and industrial-grade gorgonzola. The latter cheese is euphemistically (but without any irony) referred to in Maltese as “tat-tursina”, literally “with parsley”. Ahem.
Maltese ricotta (similar but different from its Sicilian namesake) and ġbejna (cheeselets made with goat milk) were reasons to proverbially thank God for small, locally-produced mercies. And “small” they were, not only with regard to options but also as regards availability.
Years went by. Trade was opened along the way to EU membership and the country prospered. That, as well as awareness of the wider world thanks to more travel and media, also helped improve the country’s tastes.
Which is not to say that improvement was even or as much as one would have wished or expected. Cheese is a case in point: the newcomers are hardly any better than the “classics”. Actually, make that “the classics” with some olives or pepper added to make them look fancy.
Sure, in Malta the availability of anything will be conditioned by the fact that it’s a small market on Europe’s periphery. But you would have expected a wealthier and more knowledgeable market to push for more. Why hasn’t that happened? Could it be that most of the potential buyers are people with hang-ups from past decades?
If that’s the case that means there’s hope. Just as a bit of marketing revived a wine-drinking culture that was almost obliterated by beer on one side and spirits on the other, cheese in Malta might still have its day.
And — why not — someday Maltese producers might decide to leave the comfort zone of soft cheeses and produce a good artisanal cheddar. Britain was able to break the habit, so should we.