Food & Drink
Our daily bread: the secret to Maltese bread
The humble loaf is as much a part of our cultural heritage as anything else, and for us locals, nothing beats the delectable taste of an oven fresh hobza.

Adriana Bishop

No meal in Malta is complete without Maltese bread. It has been a staple of our diet for centuries, and remains at the top of our daily shopping list today. We are more than proud of our bread, we treasure it as much as we do our historic temples and cities. And of course, we firmly believe it is the best bread in the world. 

So important is the Maltese ħobża (that’s bread in Maltese) for us, that it is being considered as a potential candidate for UNESCO’s register of intangible cultural heritageIf you wanted to define the taste of Malta, a bite of Maltese bread is all you need. But, what’s so special about it? 

Perhaps it’s the centuries-old technique of making the bread, a technique that has survived to this day with very little change, if any. Or perhaps it’s the mother dough (tinsila), that piece of yesterday’s sour dough that is incorporated into today’s batch to aerate the bread, giving it its unique taste and texture. Well, there’s only one way to find out. 

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Maltese food writer Matty Cremona gives a most mouth watering description of Maltese bread in her book The Way We Ate: “The crown of a genuine Maltese loaf is the dark brown crust, a crunchy covering for bread that is springy, full of air holes and softly chewy. The base of the bread, which cooks directly on the stone base of the oven, is hard and satisfyingly chewy.” 

If that hasn’t tickled your taste buds yet, wait till you walk through a village like Qormi, famous for its bakeries, and follow your nose. Needless to say, the Maltese ħobża tastes best fresh out of the oven, and is meant to be eaten on the day. Steer clear of supermarket mass produced imposters and seek out the real thing in village bakeries. 

Good enough eaten as it is, the round loaf comes into its own when smeared with olive oil and crushed local tomatoes and then topped with a mixture of tuna, capers and olives to make ħobż biż-żejt (literally meaning bread with oil), Malta’s most iconic snack. I can guarantee that by the end of your holiday you will have learnt these three Maltese words and you will never forget them.

Maltese bakeries are still very traditional and small-scale, and you can visit any village forn (bakery) for a glimpse of how the ħobża is made. The speed with which the baker works, kneading and forming the dough into round loaves, is phenomenal. However, making the perfect, traditional Maltese loaf is a slow process, taking between seven and eight hours from kneading the dough to taking the bread out of the oven. 

Our love affair with bread dates back to the New Stone Age. Querns dating from around 4,850 BC have been discovered in the Neolithic hamlet of Skorba on the outskirts of Mgarr in the North of Malta. The island was never self-sufficient for wheat and had to rely on imports from Sicily. As it was the lifeline of the islanders, it was critical to ensure that the wheat arrived dry and was stored properly. The Knights of St John built underground granaries in Floriana and Valletta which can still be seen today. 

There was a time when bread was the focal part of every meal, and everything else was just an accompanying dish (kumpanagg). 

Bread even invaded our language, and we have a wonderful array of bread-related idioms. Wondering what kind of person someone is? Then you’ll need to find out “what sort of bread does he eat”. If someone tells you “Malta never refused wheat” they mean that all gifts are welcome. And someone who is well-off has “his bread baked and ready”.

For a snapshot of life in a Maltese bakery at the turn of the last century, pop into Nenu The Artisan Baker in Valletta. Built on the site of an old bakery, the restaurant has a small permanent display featuring the life of a baker and his family. You can watch a documentary about the eponymous Nenu and Malta’s bread making tradition while tucking into traditional Maltese home cooking. Ask for a sneak peak into the kitchen to see the original bread oven. 


Adriana Bishop
Written by
Adriana Bishop
A former journalist and travel PR executive, Adriana divides her time between her adopted home Switzerland and her forever home Malta where she enjoys playing the ‘local tourist’ re-discovering favourite haunts and new attractions on every visit.

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