Food & drink
The sweet it's OK to eat at Lent: But does anyone actually like karamelli tal-harrub?
A Lenten investigation that resulted in a resounding yes.

Marie-Claire Grima

When I was still in secondary school, I was one of those highly weird individuals who would be really excited about the arrival of Lent. No, it wasn’t for the opportunity to think about my shortcomings as a person and repent for my sins. It wasn’t for the chance to prove that I could survive 40 days without chocolate. And it wasn’t even because it meant that figolli and Easter eggs were right around the corner.

It was because it meant that the tuck shop would once again be stocking karamelli tal-harrub.

Karamelli tal-harrub are small sugary squares that look like little pieces of brown glass. They’re a traditional sweet made from carob syrup and are one of the foods that it was traditionally okay to eat in the abstemious Lenten period before Good Friday, because they weren’t derived from animal by-products.

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It was only in the 19th or 20th century that sugar started to be considered something that could break the randan fast, especially during times of poverty and scarcity when such products were considered frivolous luxuries.

Nowadays, even people who give up chocolate for Lent may make an exception for karamelli, because they’re not sweets sweets. Although the amount of sugar in them might question this.

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You can make karamelli at home, but in the run-up to Good Friday, they’ll be in most confectioners and corner shops, so many people will buy them ready made. They’re sold in little plastic bags, which is appropriate because they’re about as addictive as hard drugs. The most ubiquitous brand is Ta’ Pavia, whose mascot is a lady wearing a faldetta and a smirk, as if to say, “I knew you couldn’t have just one.”

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While karamelli have a lot of fans, they’re fairly divisive. Like all other brown, sticky Maltese foods (see also: Kinnie, bigilla, the treacle in qaghaq tal-ghasel), it’s a case of love it or loathe it. I recently asked a few friends what they thought about karamelli, and whether they considered themselves to be pro-karamelli, or anti-karamelli. It provided a very interesting look into the Maltese psyche. Or something like that.

Why do people love karamelli tal-harrub?

The number of people who enjoy karamelli tal-harrub won by a slim margin (54 per cent) over the people who don’t like them (46 per cent), according to a highly scientific (cough) Instagram poll I conducted. People gave delightful reasons for their pro-karamelli stance, including their “super crunchy” texture, their caroby “tang”, their “addictive” appeal, and the fact that they’re “natural sweets.” “They heal the soul,” one person said fervently – which, true.

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They also held a peculiarly sinful appeal – one respondent recalled being eight years old and eating the sugary squares during the duluri procession when normal sweets were strictly verboten, but karamelli were somehow okay.

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My favourite answer, however, was the following, because it’s so bizarre. But, somehow, I get it: “As a kid I always wanted to eat Pears Soap. Karamelli reminded me of it and they were edible.” This is exactly how crazy global phenomena like the Tide Pod challenge start, so thank goodness for karamelli, for providing us with a safe, delicious alternative to bathroom soap.

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Why do people hate karamelli tal-harrub?

However, almost as many people despise these innocuous crunchy squares. “Horrible”, “gross” and “like a fake Jolly Ranchers sweet” were among the highly vivid descriptions recounted by the anti-karamelli crew.

“I love the taste, but I hate the sugar,” one respondent despaired, while one particularly health conscious person concurred that she was not a fan of them because “the sugar content can kill someone on the spot.”

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Fair enough, but as the poets once said, you have to find what you love and let it kill you.

Whether you like karamelli or not, they’re a fundamental part of Lent in Malta and they hold a special place in the hearts of many. However, if you love them, make sure you enjoy them responsibly – despite the fact that they’re natural sweets, they’re also basically pure sugar, so perhaps let’s not scoff a whole packet in one sitting. 

5th April 2019


Marie-Claire  Grima
Written by
Marie-Claire Grima
Marie-Claire loves travelling and exploring the weird and wonderful hidden corners of the Maltese islands.

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