These delights, typical of carnival, Lent and Easter, only make an appearance in sweet shops once a year.
Three significant events dominate Malta’s calendar between February and April – starting with energetic carnival celebrations, followed by the sombre period of lent, and leading up to the joyful commemoration of Easter. If you’ve visited the islands before, you must know that the Maltese are serious about their food, and if this is your first time, it won’t be long until you find out. Every occasion on the islands calls for some kind of celebration, and one can always count on the presence of good, genuine food. The festivities of carnival, Lent and Easter are no different, and come with a selection of traditional food specialities that you’ll only find at this time of year..
Carnival treat prinjolata looks as chaotic and colourful as the city streets on carnival weekend. While its origins are obscure, its characteristics are unmistakable, and numerous cakes embellish shop windows and displays for weeks before and during carnival. The name of this dome-shaped sponge cake comes from ‘prinjol’, meaning pine nuts, which make up the cake’s main ingredient, together with candied fruit, vermouth and other ingredients. The cake is decorated with a creamy frosting and melted chocolate, more pine nuts and candied red and green cherries.
Perlini are coloured sugar-coated almonds which are also typically produced during carnival. They appear in variations of dainty pastel colours and are easy to come across, often sold by street vendors dotted along the carnival procession route. In days gone by, perlini would be thrown gently from atop carnival floats for children and adults to catch and enjoy.
Indulgent carnival sweets are especially enjoyed with the knowledge of an approaching Lenten period, when believers fast for 40 days and abstain from rich food, particularly sweet treats and fancy meals. That said, locals could not get by for such a stretch without a hint of sugar, which is why kwarezimal (almond cakes) – the name of which is derived from ‘quaresima’, the 40 days of lent – came to be. They contain no added fat or eggs, and are very simple to make. While recipes may vary, they are traditionally made up of almonds, flour, honey, cinnamon, nutmeg, orange blossom water, lemon and orange rind. After baking, the small cakes are smothered in a layer of local honey and sprinkled with almonds or pistachios.
One of the few other sweets permitted during Lent – especially when fasting was adhered to more rigorously – are karamelli tal-harrub (carob sweets), which are sold in every village during Holy Week, particularly on Maundy Thursday when people visit churches for the Seven Visits, and on Good Friday after processions. These square sweets, made of carob syrup, are small and solid, with a distinct taste and texture. They’re typically sold in small bags and will not set you back much, but are delicious and definitely worth tasting.
Sfineg bl-ghasel (honey fritters) are also prepared during lent, and are comprised of flat pieces of bread, coated with honey and fried in oil, enjoyed with a mug of tea or coffee. Savoury alternatives, devoid of meat, were also invented using a similar recipe, one of the most common being sfineg stuffed with spinach, anchovies and olives.
During Holy Week, many a Maltese kitchen is bustling with preparation for Easter Sunday lunch, and busy preparing the ever-popular figolli. These baked pastry shapes are filled with ground almonds, baked in bulk, and traditionally donated to family, friends and children to be eaten on Easter Sunday. Sweet pastry is used to form a shape associated with Easter time, such as a rabbit, an egg or a lamb, but with the variety of shapes available nowadays, the range has broadened to include all sorts of things! The content of the figolli is rather simple, comprising ground almonds, orange blossom water, lemon rind, egg whites and caster sugar, mixed together and placed between two identical pastry shapes and baked until light brown. Once cooled, the shape is covered with a layer of icing or chocolate, and adorned with half a chocolate egg wrapped in colourful foil paper.