This article provides information about Malta and its strongest traditions; pottery, glass-blowing, filigree and lace-making, folk music, Maltese food and the traditional market.
Malta is an island of traditions, each of which stem from its exquisite history. Here, ‘tradition’ is taken to include several aspects such as crafts, food and music – which are still present in the Maltese islands. Recently, new efforts have been injected into the revival and protection of certain dying Maltese traditions such as lace-making; not only because they provide great souvenirs for tourists who visit Malta, but because of their cultural and artistic values.
Handmade Crafts in Malta
The most ancient craft tradition in Malta, rooted firmly in the prehistoric age, is that of pottery-making. As can be seen from some of the splendid Tarxien Temple figurines (visit the Tarxien Temple, Saflieni Hypogeum and the National Museum of Archaeology), pottery was always an important form of self-expression. Today, pottery crafts are still evident, with one of the most popular being that of the ‘pasturi’, the figurines that fill-up the Christmas Crib. The first imported Italian ‘pasturi’ were very expensive and most people couldn’t afford them. As a result, locals started making their own ‘pasturi’ from rough clay and plaster. This became so popular that nowadays every Christmas exhibitions of hand-made cribs and ‘pasturi’ are displayed for the public.
Although relatively modern, glass-blowing in Malta is an ancient technique that found its way to the Maltese islands during the Phoenician period around 3000 years ago. It is entirely mouth blown and hand-made, as it was in the old days, and much of the glassware today is a type of original Maltese glass with strong Mediterranean colours. The complicated process begins with multi-coloured beads, which are blown into any shape. Clear glass is then placed around the coloured glass and a shape is given to form particular designs.
Another craft, which flourished particularly under the Knights, is gold and silverware. Malta’s most precious production is filigree and jewellery. This is still a thriving tradition, the work of which is often exported to major cities abroad. Cities like our capital, Valletta, are bursting with local jewellers, all of which provide a range of traditional, as well as modern Maltese creations.
From the time of the Knights, life in Gozo as well as the rural areas of Malta was relatively harsh. So craft industries became a main source of income for rural families, namely embroidery, weaving and lace-making. The traditional lace is known as ‘bizzilla’ and this craft was introduced to Malta by the Knights of St. John. It was called bobbin lace and was very popular for ruffs and collars in the 16th and 17th centuries. Maltese bobbin lace is made with a number of threads which are wound upon an elongated wooden bobbin or spool. A special long cushion called ‘trajbu’ is used as a base for the lace creation. All aforementioned craft products are easily obtainable in most souvenir shops around the island, but a visit to the Ta’ Qali Crafts Village will ensure an excellent understanding of all the Maltese craft traditions, including live demonstrations!
Traditional Entertainment around Malta
Folk music is very strong in many Mediterranean countries and Malta is no exception. The ‘Ghanja’, meaning ‘song’, is the traditional music of Malta and sounds like something between a Sicilian ballad and rhythmic Arabian wailing. The first known form dates back to 1792 during the final years of the rule of the Knights of St John. It was initiated by peasants but the music has now become an all round form of popular entertainment in Malta. Romance is a popular theme in these ballads, but perhaps one of the most popular forms of ‘ghanja’ is the style called ‘Spirtu pront’ (‘On the spur of the moment’), where two or more ‘ghannejja’ (singers) perform a duet, often a rhyming war of word, in typical Mediterranean style.
Like the folk music, Maltese food is highly influenced by our Sicilian and North African neighbours. Maltese platters, that accompany any glass of wine in the popular wine-bars would include olives, capers, sheep cheeselets (‘gbejniet’), sun-dried tomatoes, Maltese sausage, broad bean pate known as ‘bigilla’ and traditional Maltese crackers known as ‘galletti’. In every town one finds the typical ‘pastizzeriji’ which serve traditional ‘pastizzi’ (savoury ricotta filled filo-pastries) as well as other pastry foods, purchased off the street in a matter of minutes. ‘Hobz biz-zejt’ is another popular snack made from slices of crusty Maltese bread, spread with red tomatoes and topped with a little onion, gbejniet and anchovies or tuna, soaked in delicious olive oil.
When visiting the island of Malta look out for some other typical Maltese food such as ‘Minestra’, a very thick vegetable soup served with Maltese bread and oil; assortments of Fresh Fish, together with ‘Aljotta’, a delicious fish soup; Rabbit Stew; ‘Imqarrun’ (baked macaroni) or ‘Timpana’ (baked macaroni in a case of pastry); ‘Soppa Ta’ L-Armla’ (Widow’s Soup) which is a mixture of vegetables, left over cuts and cheeses; and finally, Snails, known as ‘Bebbux’ cooked in a hot stew. Traditional sweets include deep-fried ‘Imqaret’ (date pastries) and ‘Qubbajt’ (nougat); Easter ‘Figolli’, almond stuffed pastry figures in shapes such as rabbits, cars and hearts decorated with icing sugar; ‘Kannoli’, ricotta filled fried pastry rolls similar to those of Sicily; and Christmas ‘Qaghaq tal-Ghasel’ (honey rings).
Maltese Sunday Markets
In certain Maltese villages, the silence of the very early hours of the morning is broken by the bustling of buyers and cries of sellers in the traditional Maltese markets. They provide not only a place for buying daily necessities but for catching up with the news of the village. For everything from clothes to household items, the Sunday market outside Valletta is a key. But for a real taste of Malta’s traditional market, a visit to the Marsaxlokk fish market in the old fishing village is imperative, where vegetables and fresh fish, as well as traditional souvenirs and crafts of Malta are on sale every Sunday.