For many years it has been the ambition of many members of Slow Food in the Mediterranean area to bring together Slow Food groups to hold an annual festival where producers and members can come together to celebrate and promote good, clean, healthy food from the many diverse countries and communities that make up this vibrant and exciting part of Europe. Slow Food groups in Sicily, in the Italian region of Marche, in Malta and also in the UK came together to form Slow Food Mediterranean in 2016 with plans to build on their cooperation to make a strong presence for good in the food practices in the Mediterranean region.
Our first conference in 2016 with follow up meetings in 2017 and the exciting events in Italy in 2018 have been important steps in this quest and one of our main discussion points was to build on plans to hold a Slow Food Mediterranean artisan food festival on Malta in 2019. At this exciting event there were groups and producers from both Malta and Italy and also groups from across the Mediterranean region, also the festival also included a strong educational element which is of increasing importance given the crisis in food production and consumption.
In 2020 with the Covid 19 pandemic we were unable to move forward with our plans for more events in both Italy and Malta but in 2021 we are now working closely with the new Mediterranean olive oil academy which is primarily based in Malta and also the specialist olive oil business Olivaverde on their exciting projects in Malta and across the Mediterranean region.
When Malta talks about food
Dr Noel Buttigieg
Coordinator Programme For Mediterranean Culinary Culture, University of Malta
Slow Food Malta Convivium Leader
Let’s open up a window on the distant past. A past representative of a Maltese population obsessed with life and death. As an island of rituals, food earmarked the very basic existential meaning of the islanders as temporal and spiritual life was morphed into an expression of survival.
Seven thousand years ago settlers arrived from Sicily, bringing goats, cows, sheep and the knowledge of how to cultivate crops. As a basic symbol of human temporal survival, food became an important characteristic of the spiritual mind as prehistoric food artefacts and imagery adorned some of the oldest free-standing stone structures in the world.
Since then, and not without any interruptions, the Maltese archipelago passed from one Mediterranean coloniser to another: Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Angevins, Aragonese, and then the arrival of the Knights of St.John in 1530. Early sixteenth century descriptions of Malta, however, refer to sparse vegetation, attributed to lack of water and unfavourable climatic and topographical features.
The sterility of the Maltese archipelago and the inability to procure enough agricultural produce to sustain the people could only be mitigated through the importation of large quantities of food supplies. Malta transformed the surrounding sea from an isolating physical barrier to a bridge connecting the islanders to several southern European Mediterranean countries, especially Sicily.
Evidence indicates how Malta’s culinary practices and tastes were very similar to those already existent within the Mediterranean littoral. With only some minor variations, the Maltese continued to consume large quantities of raw and cooked grain, accompanied by vegetables and wine.
Malta’s Mediterranean diet continued to persist into the nineteenth century and thereafter following the colonisation of the archipelago by the British. Although Malta became independent in 1964, British military forces left Malta in 1979. For almost three centuries, the Maltese would also borrow and adopt aspects of Britain’s culinary practices. The consumption of large quantities of potatoes, drinking tea and beer, just to mention a few, are witness of how culinary culture is constantly changing. Consumption patterns are no constant continuum. Even if some might change very slowly, today we feel that such culinary practices are challenged in so many different ways.
The term ‘democratisation of food’ should be dealt with some caution. The question is, is food in the world truly ‘democratic’? While it is important that everyone should have an equal opportunity to avoid hunger, it is also important that what we are consuming is healthy, is respective of the environment, and protects those producers who invest time and energy to provide quality food. The Maltese authorities are urged to adopt the principles of Slow Food as good measures to continue to mitigate the challenge experienced by a population suffering from high rates of food related diseases.
Precisely because of these reasons, Malta provides a perfect backdrop to exhibit the Mediterranean culinary practises and cultures. Malta welcomes being involved with the Convivia from Sicily and Britain, two very important sources in Malta’s culinary past, to share with members and patrons some of the challenges and successes in the journey towards healthy and sustainable living. Along with Slow Food groups from mainland Italy let’s open a window on the future, with conferences and events that we can hold now and in the future that are intended to start several projects aspiring to see more Convivia from the entire Mediterranean littoral joining the effort to raise awareness and help mitigate current challenges.