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Malta's Favorite Pastry
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Malta’s Preferred Phyllo Treat
By Joe Baur
Head out for a stroll around the Baroque streets of Malta’s capital Valletta, and you’ll find the word “pastizzi” scrawled everywhere from chalkboard menus to bakery signs. Pastizzi are phyllo pastries traditionally stuffed with mushy peas or irkotta, a savory cheese cousin to Italy’s sweet ricotta, made with sheep’s milk. They are rejuvenating pockets of flaky, buttery deliciousness to start the day and help fill the gap between meals.
Dr. Noel Buttigieg, Senior Lecturer at the University of Malta, researches tourism, cultural heritage, and food history and its relationship to culture, and is the go-to source on Maltese foodways. Ask him about pastizzi and he can launch into an impromptu lecture starting with the pastry’s earliest documented mention: the 16th century, when the Order of St. John ruled the Mediterranean island.
Just how far back pastizzi goes into Maltese history is impossible to say. The only reason historians have this first mention is because a painter was reported to the Inquisitor for eating meat on prohibited days, and the event was recorded. (This pastizzi was filled with rabbit meat.)
More direct references to pastizzi don’t show up until the turn of the 19th century. These references come with descriptions of its shape and size, matching up with what’s sold across Malta today.
“It appears that many Maltese used to consume pastizzi as some sort of a dessert during Christmas, or during the Christmas meal,” says Dr. Buttigieg. “But I have a feeling that prior to these references in the 19th century, the Maltese were consuming pastizzi throughout the whole year.”
References to pastizzi increase leading up to the Second World War. Herbert Ganado, a Maltese-born lawyer, politician, and author, wrote about the growth of sophisticated cafes along Valletta's public squares during this period of British colonial rule.
"[Ganado] says that the Maltese are eating pastizzi at these cafes and they're drinking coffee and tea," explains Buttigieg. Ganado believed they were emulating their British colonizers.
It was around this period, says Buttigieg, that pastizzi became not just something that the Maltese ate, but a food souvenir for visitors traveling to the island. This was especially true for British soldiers stationed on Malta.
After the war, pastizzi shops, sometimes called pastizzeria, started popping up in urban areas, primarily in Valletta. By the 1970s they were opening across suburban and rural Malta as well.
“Today, you have pastizzi shops in pretty much every single town in Malta," says Buttigieg. Pastizzi have even taken on colloquial connotations, including an association with vaginas because of its round, diamond shape. To call someone a “pastizz” is to essentially call them an idiot or not a very good person. Pressing your thumbs and index fingers together into the shape of a pastizzi can also be an insulting gesture.
Buttigieg ran a survey 15 years ago that asked students to name three foods they considered Maltese. Pastizzi didn't make the list. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Buttigieg ran the same exercise and pastizzi was at the top of the list.
"You can see that in just 15 years, you have this major cultural mind shift in what they consider to constitute typical Maltese food," says Buttigieg. "Today, there is a very strong connection with pastizzi, especially among the younger generation."
But in this day and age of constant culinary fusion, don’t expect to see any bespoke pastizzi.
"There were attempts by one company some 10 years ago [...] to introduce other fillings like Nutella," says Buttigieg. "It didn't fly." 🇲🇹
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