The closed food market in Valletta was in a state of decay, a few shops remained in what was once the place where people used to come from all across the island to shop there. There were butchers, fishmongers, cheesemongers and every family seemed to have their favourite supplier. That has changed thanks to the refurbishment of the Is-Suq tal-Belt as it is known by the locals. The food market opened its doors officially on 3 January and crowds have started to flock there first out of curiosity but also to savour the food that is on offer there.
I still remember the trips to Valletta which ended with a visit to the market where my mother would stock up on anything from blood pudding to calf liver or Maltese sausage. But over time, the allure of the market was lost as people preferred to shop locally and supermarkets sprouted around the island.
It died a slow death, dilapidated with just a few shops remaining that served mainly the dwindling Valletta population.
Today the market serves a different purpose. The ground floor houses a number of eateries that serve food in a communal area. There are restaurants like Gululu serving typical Maltese food or Ta’ Kelinu serving traditional pastizzi.
There is also the Pulled Meat company as well as Vecchia Napoli, one of Malta’s best pizza places that has opened its fourth outlet inside the market. Fish lovers can stop at T’Anna Mari run by Sicilian chef who has been in Malta for many years and has successfully run a restaurant in the fishing village of Marsaxlokk for over 15 years.
Also available is Zest, one of the first Asian restaurants to open on the island over 15 years ago, a mozzarella bar, a salad bar and a grill among others.
At the food market in the basement, you can get local wines, local and foreign cheeses as well as vegetables, meat, fish, fresh pasta and other delicacies.
The Suq tal-Belt (meaning City Market) is a covered market hall built in the 19th century, It is notable for being the first building in Malta to be constructed mostly in iron. Its decline began in the 1980s.
The Order of St John built the first market on the spot but during the early British period, it was found to have several issues and was demolished. Plans to reconstruct the covered market in Valletta began in 1845 and the Valletta market was built between 1859 and 1861 on the site of old prisons. It originally contained 153 stalls and 65 cellars. it was bombed on 7 April 1942 during the Second World War destroying one third of the building. The damaged parts were repaired soon afterwords but were not rebuilt to the original plan and the roof’s symmetry was lost.
The Valletta Market has a rectangular plan. The roof is made of cast and wrought iron decked in timber and it is supported on cast iron columns and trusses. This use of iron makes it an unusual structure and it was the first building in Malta to be constructed mostly of pre-fabricated iron. The design of the Valletta market was inspired by Covent Garden in London and the Halles Centrales in Paris. The design of the Valletta Market influenced similar projects elsewhere in the British Empire including in Calcutta.
It is still very early days for Is-Suq tal-Belt but you should not skip visiting it not only for its unique architecture but also for what’s on offer.
Market plus points
- A variety of places to eat which serve a wide range of foods in a communal area. This is a new concept in Malta but one that has worked elsewhere. It is a great place to sample different foods from different stalls and gives you a glimpse of Malta’s food culture.
- The structure on the roof has been criticised and it is not exactly how it was planned but inside it is a job well done. The architectural features and the steel works make this a place to visit both as a local and also as a tourist.
- Every city worth its salt has a food market because its a reflection of the culture of the locals. That alone is a plus point. But there are also some good eateries giving a quick glimpse at some local staples and also more cosmopolitan food that has become common in Malta over the years.
A few tips to make the Valletta market better
- A communal space that could serve to offer cookery lessons both to locals and tourists alike. Wouldn’t it be great to have a space equipped with a kitchen where people can gather to cook together, to share experiences, even for team building.
- A dedicated bookshop: it would also be great to have a small space selling food and drink related books and magazines. A food market should not just be about the food but should also dedicate itself to educating locals and tourists alike about the food culture of the island. Nothing would be better than picking up cookbooks from a food market.
- The food market will require good logistics to be successful. Customers will need help to carry their goods because parking close to the market is difficult if not impossible.
- More emphasis needs to be placed on local food particularly in the market area. This should be the showcase of the best Maltese produce.