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Part 1 - The Hotel, the Wines and the Food of Malta
We had promised ourselves a holiday in Malta since we visited the islands on board Queen Elizabeth 2, and it was an obvious choice when we decided to go away at short notice in September. Pauline spent two days researching options on the Internet, then she went down to our local travel agent to firm up on our plans. After about an hour sitting with them, searching for the right combination of dates, flights and hotel, we paid our money. It was all organised at short notice. Lesley and Alec at Brooking Travel were very patient and helpful, and without their efforts we would not have managed to get away.
The flight time to Malta from Heathrow Terminal 4 was 3 hours, and we arrived at Luqa International Airport in beautiful hot, sunny, sticky weather. There were just a small group who were going to the north west, and so 10 of us were loaded into a little white van, with all our luggage. The main roads are in a rough condition and the van bounced along, rushing towards each roundabout. Pete got banged against the side of the van as we went along the St Paul's bypass road. We wondered how we would enjoy our hire car.
We had chose to stay at the Grand Hotel Mercure Selmun Palace, which is a Hotel belonging to Air Malta but under a 10 year lease to the French Accor Group. We were told later that the lease would expire in October 2007 and that the Hotel was presently For Sale. The Hotel is 25 years old, and was built in the grounds of Selmun Palace. Like all of the Palaces built at the time of the Knights of St John, it is in a commanding site, on high ground, with panoramic views which are shared by the rooms of the hotel. One of the conditions of building the Hotel had been that it should fit in with the style of the Palace. Therefore it was built in local limestone with matching balconies and was only a limited height. Unfortunately, since joining the EC, the Hotel has been forced to increase the height of the balcony balustrades in order to satisfy EC directives and prevent the possibility of small children falling over the balconies. The extra height has been achieved by adding heavy local limestone blocks. Hopefully the extra weight will not be a problem. Except for the 10 suites, each of the 138 rooms is identical, although some have partial sea views, others have views down to St Paul's Bay, and the ground floor rooms have patios instead of balconies. We were allocated Room 203, which is on the first floor and with a view to the north east. To our left we could see the edge of the islands of Comino and Gozo, and to the right we could see the derelict and deserted Fort Campbell, home to British Servicemen during WWII and the edge of Qawra point. We liked the views from rooms in that part of the Hotel, although it would have been nicer to get a room on the next floor above.
The Hotel has a number of facilities, including a large outdoor pool, and a smaller indoor pool. There are two table tennis tables, one indoors and the other outside, as well as two tennis courts. The small shop was useful to buy postcards and stamps, as well as having large bottles of mineral water for sale. The tap water did not taste very nice. For its size it had a good selection of souvenirs, books and maps and beach wear. The Fitness Room downstairs was equipped with a cycle, cross trainer, treadmill, bench and multi-gym. It was kept locked, supposedly so that children didn't go and play with the weights. It did not seem to be used vrey much. Indeed, the hotel seemed full at mealtimes but then it was mostly deserted during the day.
One of the other conditions of building the Hotel had been that the Palace must be restored. We took a tour of the Palace, so that we could see the chapel and reception rooms, and get the spectacular view from the roof. The story begins with a certain noble woman, Caterina Vitale, who died in 1619 and left a large part of her wealth to the Monte di Redenzione in her will, for the ransom of Christian hostages who had been forced to become slaves. Many knights and Maltese had been taken by Muslims during the wars between the Cross and the Crescent. Her land included the territory today known as Selmun, and the palace was built much later, reputedly by Duminku Cachia, in 1783. During that period Selmun Palace was hired to knights as a place to relax and to hunt wild animals. We occasionally heard the noises when we walked around the grounds, and the surrounding lands would be good for rabbit shooting. Above the main entrance there is a large R symbol, which is the Redenzione emblem.
We were told that the local people had to travel several miles to the nearest church and so the chapel was established for them inside the Palace. According to Charles Fiott in his book Towns and Villages in Malta and Gozo, the chapel was dedicated to il-Madonna tal-Hlas, Our Lady of Ransom. Like many of the old Palaces, it all fell into disrepair. In recent times, once the restoration was completed it was run for many years as a guest house, leased by a British couple, before being incorporated into the Hotel. There are 6 guest rooms, and the main reception room and the chapel are often used for weddings.
We had only booked B&B because we didn't necessarily want to commit to eating in the Hotel every evening. It is often better value, and more interesting, to eat out in local restaurants. Having seen the location, a good distance away from any alternative, we asked about the cost for converting to Half Board, compared with taking dinner on a daily basis. It was suggested that we tried the evening meal, which was a buffet, on the first night, and then make our decision. The buffet was excellent. As an upgrade to B&B it cost LM6 (about £10) each, and it would be LM7.50 otherwise. Meals were all taken in the De Favrey restaurant, which could seat over 200 people. There was an extensive salad bar, with lots of prawns, mussels and cold fish. There was also a soup, and two choices of pasta. Then the main course included a carvery, and there was local fish, meat and vegetables. In our entire stay we never saw chips. There was a limited choice of cheese, only three or four different sorts but again local, and a good choice of cold desserts, ice cream and some fresh fruit. It was obvious that we would find a lot of nice things to eat off the buffet, and that the produce was fresh, well cooked, and sourced locally. The main problem would be eating too much and putting on weight. We immediately signed for the upgrade to half board.
Once each week in September it is possible to book dinner in the Palace. It was described as a gourmet a la carte meal in Le Chateau Restaurant which is located in the chapel and seats 40 people.. We were happy to pay the LM6.50 supplement for the experience, but when we saw the menu it was a fixed menu. The meal started with mixed hors d'oevres, there was then a fish course, a choice of meat or fish as main course, and then chocolate mousse and coffee. We were asked to decide in advance whether we wanted the meat or fish as main course, which was odd, and which indicated that the food was going to be all fixed in advance and then delivered from the Hotel kitchen to the table. We still made a provisional booking and then spoke about the limited choice of food and decided to cancel. Pete does not do chocolate puddings, and we thought the meal might finish too late to get into the Hotel buffet for an alternative. The buffet meals in the main Hotel restaurant had been good and we thought that the meal in the Palace might be a disappointment. In addition, the booking was for a Thursday, which was our last evening with our hire car, and we had thought of perhaps going across on the ferry to Gozo, and then it would have been difficult to get back in time for the 1930 prompt start. And finally, we found out that a large group of 39 french people had just booked, and we did not want to share our nice romantic dinner with its background classical music with a jolly group. We suspected we might even be pushed into the main reception room, instead of eating in the chapel.
On Friday night the Hotel offered a BBQ, providing the weather is good. We went down to dinner as usual, just after 1900 and found that most people were already there, and sitting at tables outside. We decided to stay indoors; there are pros and cons. On the one hand people are allowed to smoke outdoors, which causes us problems, but the BBQ was being cooked outside, and it was a festival atmosphere whereas it was much quieter in the restaurant. We noticed that the cats were on duty, prowling between the tables in search of fallen delicacies. The BBQ food was excellent, with local Maltese sausage, tender chicken cooked in honey and ginger, steaks, sweetcorn and then lots of vegetables and jacket potatoes. There were promises of entertainment afterwards and so we took our remaining wine and went outside once people who had eaten early had left. The entertainment, which began at 2100, was two local couples who did dance demonstrations. The one couple were dressed in formal clothes, long dress and tails, and danced classical dances. The younger couple did the more energetic dances. The problem was that all their music was taped and the organisation was barely amateur. Each couple arrived to a flurry of appropriate music, which was then halted. The couple stood to attention and waited for the music to start again to begin their performance. At the end there was taped music for general dancing which the large groups seemed to be enjoying. We left as soon as we could.
Once we had our hire car we could get out and we had our first taste of local fish for lunch. It was a simple fried lampuki with chips and salad and a glass of local white wine, eaten on the waterfront at Marsaxlokk, and it only cost LM1.50 each (under £2.50). Otherwise known as Dolphin fish or Mahi Mahi, lampuki is only available from mid August to around December. It is a sleek fish and has a white flesh similar to a sea bass. The Air Malta Sky Life magazine explained that there was a ritual behind the lampuki season. Boats get blessed at the opening of the season after which the fishermen build floats and anchor them out in the middle of the sea. Lampuki like flotsam and they tend to lie under floating objects. These floats, known locally as kannizzati, are made from palm leaves. The lampuki remain underneath these floats for the entire season and move on towards December.
On Tuesday night a local folklore group came to the Hotel, and the food had lots of local specialities. The music and dancing started early, about 1900, and lasted for half an hour. It was very good, and we like to watch folklore groups. The food also was excellent, although nothing was labelled and so it was not until we bought a book on Maltese cooking that we understood what we had been eating. For example, there was a broad bean dip, octopus, grilled lampuki, rabbit casserole, bread pudding and helwa.
The climate in Malta is not very different to that of its neighbour Sicily, so we expected there to be local wine. Although the climate and conditions are good it is only in the last 15 years that there was a move away from high quantity low quality varieties of local hybrid grapes, particularly the white grape Gigentina and the red grape Gellewza, to the noble grape varieties of chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah and petit verdot. We quickly found that the Maltese wine business was dominated by just large two companies that produce a number of wines from local grapes, imported grapes or juice and/or a mix of both. The reason for making wine from imported italian wine grapes is simply consumption. Malta could never produce enough grapes to meet the local demand, and tourists generally want a cheap local wine. These two key vintners are Marsovin and Delicata wines.
Marsovin traces its history back to 1919 when Anthony Cassar and his family started making and selling wines. In 1999 they launched the sparkling wine, "Cassar de Malte", named after Anthony Cassar and his son Joseph whose life long ambition was to produce this noble wine. We purchased the 2003 vintage, which produced only 3153 bottles, and has won a number of prizes in international competitions. Made from high-quality Chardonnay grapes harvested from their estate in Wardija, where there are some 7,500 vines it has 12 months maturing on the lees in the bottle before disgorgement. It is an excellent Methode Champenoise, costing about LM7.50 (£12) per bottle which is quite expensive compared with similar wines from other countries. Nevertheless we would recommend it.
The Selmun Palace Hotel offered good value wine by the carafe, and this was served to the large groups. Even the basic wine made from italian grapes was well made with proper corks. On the first night we tried two different half bottles of red from Marsovin, the Original Special Reserve at LM2 and the La Vallette at LM3, of which our preference was for the cheaper Original Special Reserve. This wine was also offered in the minibar in our room, and was less than LM1 for a bottle in the supermarkets.
On our visit to Marsaxlokk we saw one of the Marsovin estates, said to comprise some 50,000 noble vines, a mixture of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot. We also passed another Marsovin vineyard, the Cheval France estate, on the outskirts of St Paul's Bay. Cheval Franc is the only Maltese wine to be made entirely from the Cabernet Franc grape variety. Franc denotes the grape variety, while cheval evokes the love for horses of Marsovin's late chairman, Joseph Cassar.
Delicata is also a family business; it was founded in 1907 by Eduardo Delicata and is located in Paola, on the waterfront overlooking the Grand Harbour. The expansion of wine making in Malta in the early 1990s led to new challenges. Delicata embarked on their innovative 'Vines for Wines' project to increase the amount of land under vine, with the aim of providing the land owner with all the knowledge and expertise required to set up and operate a successful modern vineyard. Financial support was made available, along with free vineyard management consultancy services throughout the year by Delicata's team of viticultural experts. Over 350 Vignerons have been trained and are now growing premium quality grapes for the Delicata family winemaker on an on-going basis. These 'pocket sized' boutique vineyards are scattered throughout the islands and produce newly introduced grape varieties such as: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Syrah, Grenache, Carignan, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Of the cheaper wines from Emmanuel Delicata, we tried the Medina vineyards Malta grown Chardonnay and Girgentina, at LM6 in the restaurant of the Hotel and were impressed. It went well with fish, as promised on the label.
On the aircraft we had been surprised that the pleasant red and white wine served was made in Malta but from italian grapes, and both types of wine were served cold. Both made by Delicata, the green label Blanc de Blancs and the red Rouge de Rouge are the bottom of their range, said to be blended for consistency, and have been produced since the 1970s. The label pronounces that the wine was made at the Winery on the Waterfront in Marsa, whereas their other wines were from the Winery on the Waterfront at Paola. Similarly Marsovin wines seem to be at the waterfronts of both Paola and Marsa. We visited neither town so this gives us a challenge to find out who is where on our next visit.
We had seen a number of grape vines while driving, and one afternoon we tried to follow signs to Meridiana Wine Estate, without success. Then we spent a day in Mdina and could see the actual winery and surrounding vineyards from the top of the ramparts. Cross-referencing with our map we plotted a route, and eventually found our way to the cellar door. Unfortunately we had just missed an organised tour and tasting, but these happen most days and so we agreed to come back the next morning. The tour and tasting costs LM2.50 each. Meridiana set up their first experimental vineyard in the late 1980s and then in 1989 purchased the land in the middle of the old Ta' Qali airfield for the present vineyard of 19 hectares (47 acres). It was planted with chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah and petit verdot in 1994 and 1995. The vineyard is drained by a herring-bone system laid by the RAF during WWII and so this collects rainwater which is stored in a large underground cistern. The 91,000 vines each have their own individual drip-feed irrigators. Meridiana's mission is "To produce world class wines of Maltese character". The grapes are all grown within a Maltese climate and soil and state-of-the-art technology is used with rigorous temperature control and some barrel fermentation. We were fortunate that Josette Miceli-Farrugia herself was able to explain the history of the vineyard and do a tutored tasting of some of their wines. Unfortunately the grapes had recently been picked and it was not possible to go and look at the equipment. For example, the chardonnay was picked in August and the merlot in late August. Through the door we could see tubing full of red liquid snaking across the floor, and it would be too slippy and dangerous for visitors to enter. There was a super aroma of crushed red grape skins from the little truck outside.
We were invited to taste three wines: the Isis, Nexus and Melqart. We were very impressed with the Isis 2005, a chardonnay with tropical fruit flavours, and bought a bottle on the spot and then purchased a few extra bottles at the duty free shop at the airport to bring home. The quality of the chardonnay persuaded us to also purchase a bottle of the 2002 Mistral, their premium chardonnay, without tasting it. It had been fermented for one year in new french oak, and so we expected a stronger flavour. Josette said that it was the sort of wine which you could only sip, but she was referring to the higher alcohol levels - Mistral was 13.5% instead of the 12% of the Isis. We did make the bottle last for two days, but that was because of the intensity of flavour. Indeed back at the Hotel we tasted it just before tasting the Melqart, and that was a mistake. The Nexus 2004 was obviously a Merlot although we were not shown the bottle until after we had gone through the ritual of tasting it properly. It is kept in french oak for 1 year and then it is aimed to sell all the red wine by Christmas. It would keep for a while in a cellar and it has quite a lot of tannin. In contrast, the Melqart 2004 was a delightful soft blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and was ready for drinking now. Sadly we were not invited to taste either the Bel syrah or the top-of-the range Celsius cabernet sauvignon; the latter is kept in the cellars for an extra year after bottling.
The Air Malta Sky Life magazine had an article about Maltese cuisine, which described the cooking of two chefs: Claude Camilleri and Etienne Borg Ferranti. We kept the article and then discovered that Claude Camilleri was the owner and Chef Patron at Palazzo Santa Rosa in Mistra Bay. We could just see the entrance to Mistra Bay from our room, so he was local.His recipe in the magazine was for Maltese Torta tal-Lampuki, which was a pie made from the local lampuki fish. Palazzo Santa Rosa was said to be the only restaurant in Malta that grows its own vegetables organically, and Claude supported the Slowfood principles of protecting traditional foods and methods. We booked a table for lunch to celebrate Pauline's birthday.
On 20th September we duly arrived by car at Mistra Bay on the dot of 1230 for lunch, just as the Palazzo Santa Rosa opened. There were several tables laid outside, but we planned a long lunch and worried that it might become too hot so we chose a table indoors laid with crisp white linen and which had air conditioning. We had already looked at the menu and had made our choices. We planned to have two of the Maltese platter starters, which included gbejniet (a homemade Maltese cheeselet) with tangy wild orange marmalade, fresh Maltese sausage from ta' Gori in Luqa, home made bigilla(broad bean dip), pickled onion, dried cherry tomato tapenade, wild rucla and slices of felfel (red pepper plant) . In the event we were persuaded to have two different starters, and the second was roquefort with pickled pears and roasted walnuts.
While waiting we were served with home made crackers and a garlic dip. We divided the two starters between us, and had eaten most of it before we remembered that we had planned to take photos. The wild orange marmalade was excellent and we looked along the shelf for whether it was available for sale, and asked to purchase a jar. Pete had volunteered to drive back, so Pauline had the choice of wine and decided to have a bottle of the Meridiana Estate 2003 Syrah, at LM11.80. We had not been able to taste it when we visited the vineyard, but we had been impressed with all their other wines. Meridiana wines are each named and the syrah is named after Bel, the Phoenician god of fertility.
Then our two main courses arrived. Everything is cooked fresh to order so eating is nice and slow and relaxing. Pauline had the Pork Campbell, named after Fort Campbell on the hill above Mistra Bay, which was lean Maltese pork fillet wrapped in a mixture of Maltese sausage meat and pork mince, wrapped in delicate puff pastry. It reminded us of a Beef Wellington, and was served cut in two slices, and sitting on top of a mound of vegetables, surrounded by small roast potatoes. Pete had chosen the Rabbit tal-Kavallieri. This dish used only the leg and saddle of the rabbit. The rest of the meat was used to stuff a giant ravioli. The leg was stuffed with fresh french tarragon, the liver of the rabbit, pine nuts and another spice. It was then braised in a special sauce. It was no wonder that it had taken almost an hour to prepare. Both main courses were nicely presented, well cooked and we had difficulty deciding which was best.
Our friendly waitress came to enquire whether we would like a desert, and seemed surprised when we made enthusiatic positive noises. We had already decided that we would have the lemon tart, and the Maltese sweet platter. The latter had pudina tal-hobz (bread pudding), kannoli ta'i-irkotta (filled with ricotta cheese), biscuttel tar-rahal, helwa tat-tork, almond tartlet and date slices. We expected that the sweet platter would be the best, and indeed it was a very good selection of typical delicacies. But the lemon tart was spectacular, with a very intense flavour and covered with a light caramel crust. We decided that it was the best we had ever tasted, and we do know our way around a lot of good international restaurants.
When we eventually stood up to pay we were presented with a gift of a jar of homemade concentrated Carob syrup, which we eyed with suspicion. It was explained that it should be diluted, and had medicinal properties which made it an effective cure for all sorts of problems. It looked a mean black thick liquid and we wondered whether it would survive the flight back in our suitcase, or rather, whether our nice clothes would survive being in its proximity. All the provisions are made at Palazzo Santa Rosa, and are labelled with www.food2die4.net, although the URL does not seem to be yet active. Since we got home we found that Claude Camilleri was born and educated in Malta, then went overseas for some 25 years before recently returning. In a newspaper article dated 9 December 2005 he stated that he wants to get a first Michelin star in Malta . With this quality of inventive cooking he should quickly succeed. Everything is grown or made locally, even the cheeselet and the rikotta. His prices are quite high, and only 6 other people stopped for lunch when we were there, but most of their business is probably in the evenings. The next day, 21st September, was a national holiday to celebrate Independence Day in 1964, and the restaurant was going to be busy then. We paid LM43 (about £70) for our meal, and gave an extra tip, which is very unusual for us; since we retired we are very careful about tipping and only do so when we have received excellent service.
The disadvantage for us was that we had to drive back up to the Hotel, although we could see the Palace directly above us. Several days later we became curious about whether it was possible to get down from the Hotel to Mistra Bay on foot. Staff from the Hotel had explained that it used to be possible, and there was a rough map on display in the reception area which we photographed. The first part of the descent was along the road and then we turned off to the right down a steep straight 4WD track which deteriorated into a narrow footpath alongside a rubble wall. The footpath was well tramped. There were steps built when it got too steep and after a short time it joined another good track which led straight down to the road to Mistra Bay. The entire journey was direct, fairly steep, but only took 20 minutes. It would even be possible with care at night, with a good torch.
Our holiday was for 10 days, which meant we had 9 full days to explore Malta, and we had booked car hire for 7 days, so we had two days without wheels. Fortunately the Hotel offered free transport to Mellieha town and Mellieha Bay, so we set off in their shuttle bus at 1000 to explore. Some people took the bus only as far as the main road, and then waited at the bus stop for one of the ancient buses to go on to Valetta. It was only a short journey, but in the heat of the day it would be too much to walk. The buses left the Hotel at 0900, 0930 and 1000, then again in the afternoon. We said that we would come back on the bus at 1315. Normally it is necessary to book a place on the bus because it only seats 12 people.
Most people got off at Mellieha to do their shopping, but we continued down to Mellieha Bay. Ghadira Beach, next to the Nature Reserve, is one of few sandy beaches and is the largest in Malta. We walked around the beach then spotted a sign to the Supermarket at the Mellieha Holiday Center, a Danish self catering holiday village. This enabled us to buy some cheese and crackers for a late lunch. and also a bottle of the Marsovin fizzy, Cassar de Malte. When reasonable table wine can be bought for less than LM1 per bottle, it is comparatively expensive at LM7.20, but is a very pleasant alternative to Champagne, and the only local fizzy. Mellieha Bay has several large hotels, and would be a good option for a quiet beach holiday.
From Mellieha Bay we climbed up the road back to Mellieha. We noticed several hotels, including the Maritim, but they were on the main road, and Mellieha is a busy town. We prefer to be somewhere quiet. There are a lot of shops along the main street, a mixture of souvenirs and jewelry shops for the tourist and everything for the locals including banks, hardware shops and little supermarkets. We had admired the Church of our Lady of Victory in the distance, but it was closed. There was a good panoramic viewpoint behind the church, and on our way there we passed the cemetery. Like in New Zealand, the gravestones had a picture of the person set into the granite.
We still had over half an hour before our transport was due, so we wondered what to do. Then we noticed the entrance to the Mellieha WWII Air Raid Shelters. They are one of the largest shelters complexes in Malta, dug entirely by hand. The local population were expected to stay in the corridors but individuals were able to excavate private rooms, subject to certain conditions. Obviously the rooms had to be well separated so that there was no risk of collapse, and the work had to be done by hand and only at certain times. Two rooms were dedicated to hospital use including a maternity area.
The next part of our trip to Malta describes all the wonderful places we visited with our hire car.
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