Maltese bread (Maltese: Il-Ħobż tal-Malti) is a round, sourdough loaf with a hard, crunchy crust, usually stone-baked in wood ovens. The crucial detail is that the fermentation process for preparing traditional Maltese bread is over seven hours long.
Maltese bread has become an icon of Maltese food and is often eaten as an accompaniment to meals or with a variety of fillings, such as the traditional hobz biz-zejt that is rubbed with tomatoes and drizzled with olive oil, plus a variety of ingredients ranging from tuna and Gozo cheese to beans and pickled vegetables.
Bread in the Phoenician and Roman period
Bread has been a staple of the Maltese diet since Phoenician times (725–218 BC), but it has not always been the way we know it today. At that time, as in the following Roman period (218 BC–870 AD), people ate the flat bread variety.
Romans particularly enjoyed eating bread with honey, and their apiaries still survive today. This was a time when honey, bread, wine and olive oil were a sign of civilisation versus the unprocessed and uncooked food of the Barbarians in Northern Europe. These ingredients were also important symbols of the Christian congregation and bread was freely distributed to the poor.
Bread in the Arab and medieval period
During the Byzantine rule (870–1090 AD) bread was associated with all the religious practices that coexisted on the Maltese archipelago: Paganism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Under various rulers, from the Normans to the Aragonese, the food that local people ate during the Middle Ages (1091–1409 AD) depended largely on their social status. Rich and poor people both ate bread, but poorer people ate bread made of barley while rich people ate bread made of wheat, which was finer and tasted better.
Bread in the period of the Knights of Malta
Cereals continued to make up a considerable proportion of the popular diet from the medieval period through to the period when the Order of St John resided in Malta (1530–1798 AD). The hot summers and cold, humid winters were ideal for cultivating grains and there were additional regular imports of grain from Sicily until the underground silos were built. The Knights of St John built several underground silos to store grain, which would prove invaluable during times of scarcity. The largest collection of silos, locally known as il-Fosos, were built in Floriana in the 17th century.
Qormi was, and remains, the main locality for bread making in Malta. The Knights had an impact on every aspect of the local lifestyle: people began eating food with forks for the first time and new foods were introduced, but a poor person’s food was still mainly bread. With bakeries on every corner, it was at this time that Qormi became known as Casal Fornaro - the bakers' town. Qormi celebrates its bread making heritage during an annual festival called Lejl f'Casal Fornaro on the third Saturday of October.
Earning your daily bread was meant quite literally
Bread has been such an important resource in Malta and several Mediterranean societies that it could be exchanged as a means of payment. This lasted from the 17th century up to the 19th century, when field workers would prefer to be paid in mahlut. Mahlut was used for making barley bread, which was of an inferior quality because it was rather heavy on the digestive system.
Bread in Malta under the British rule
The two-year French rule barely influenced the local diet but the British rule (1800–1964 AD) brought radical changes. The Maltese quickly adapted their dietary habits to those of British families, with more variety and much less bread.
Having said that, the 1919 Sette Giugno revolution that left four people dead was partially caused by bread. The Maltese masses rose against the British colonial powers and also against the bourgeoisie and owners of the flour mills. The Great War (1914–1918) had raised the cost of living, including the price of bread, which the Maltese were still largely dependent on. The price of wheat had gone up, the British governor refused to give millers a subsidy and millers wanted to keep making profits. The Farrugia mills in Qormi and Francia’s mills in Hamrun were razed to the ground.
The underground flour mills
World War II brought with it a food scarcity marked with food rationing. Forming part of the civil defence measures to ensure the population would always be provided with bread, during the 1950s, the British Military Services constructed seven flour mills deep underground, each with its own silos and running on its own power. The mills in Xemxija and Xlendi have been restored and reopened as tourist attractions.
Bread in Malta in the last 50 years
Food, including bread, became cheaper in the 1950s, but rationing remained a characteristic of post World War II Malta until the 1970s, with basics such as flour, bread, pasta, sugar and vegetable oil exchanged against coupons. The year 1977 saw a bakers’ industrial action that highlighted the local dependency on bread as a staple food. This fuelled the establishment of Medigrain, a parastatal company set up as the exclusive importer of milling wheat (hard and soft) to keep the price of bread stable. It closed down in 2003 in a move towards liberalisation.
A monument to commemorate the untiring service of the bakers of Malta, especially those of Qormi, was erected in 1992. As of 2010, Qormi is still the base of over 40% of Maltese bakeries.