Local cook and catering company owner Marilú Vella talks us through the herbs that go into Malta and Gozo’s most loved traditional dishes.
While fresh and dried herbs are both commonly available to buy in shops and supermarkets, growing your own has become a popular and satisfying hobby for many Maltese cooks. Marilú Vella, a talented home-cook who founded her bespoke catering company, Pastizzi Gourmet, does just that.
“In our kitchen we use herbs quite a lot. We’ve managed to grow a number of herbs, including rosemary, mint, thyme, sage and oregano, but probably the most popular ones at home are parsley, basil and one which is not as common: cilantro. Parsley is a staple in Maltese cuisine, and it goes with most Maltese dishes. It is also very easily used to decorate a plate when you want to impress your guests but you’re limited with time, a situation which I often catch myself in!
“Basil is also a popular herb in our Maltese islands, and its smell and taste immediately take me back to Maltese summer and hobz biz-zejt (fresh bread served with oil and tomato paste) by the sea. Thanks to the Italians, here at home we have learnt how to use it sparingly with pasta and pizza dishes, and when our plant gives us way too much basil for us to eat, we always make a beautiful pesto to make our basil last longer. Coriander on the other hand has a very particular taste, which some love and others loathe. At home, we love it. And I love how versatile it can be. Besides Maltese dishes, I also like to experiment with various ethnic cuisines such as Indian and Mexican, where coriander features heavily, so I always make sure to have a little coriander growing in our garden.”
A Guide to Malta’s Herbs
Fennel (buzbiez) - Wild fennel grows abundantly in the Maltese scrub, and the pungent aroma of these wild plants makes the urge to stick your nose into a sprig and inhale it deeply irresistible. And of course, no dish of crispy roast potatoes is complete without a generous helping of fennel sprinkled on top.
Parsley (tursin) - Parsley is a perennial favourite for adding flavour or a decorative touch, and is so common that many a greengrocer will throw a generous bunch into your bag with the rest of the vegetables for free.
Thyme (saghtar) - Thyme grows tall in valleys and near the coast, and is used to flavour lamb and pork stews as well as braised rabbit.
Rosemary (klin) - Spiky sprigs of rosemary are a must for cooking chicken or for baking your own focaccia – it’s quite strong in smell and taste, so even a little is enough to impart its herby tang.
Mint (minta) - Mint is used for dishes both savoury and sweet – roast lamb and fish dishes like aljotta wouldn’t be the same without it, but, for a summer dessert, there are few combinations more refreshing than lemon and mint; not to mention mojitos and Martini cocktails!
Sage (salvja) - Sage’s fragrant and velvety leaves can be used with pork, sausages and preserved meats, as well as butter sauce for ravioli.