In a country where buses are notorious for arriving either ten minutes early or ten minutes late, there is one thing you can count on: Maltese bread, “ħobż malti” (“ħobż” for short). Do not take this resource for granted! The simple white rolls may dot every window and comprise every sandwich, but its history, edibility, and cautionary notes render ħobż unique amongst breads of the world.
Bake your Hobz…
According to Doris Frenech, author of “Maltese Bread” via Maltese Traditions, wheat was historically taken by farmer’s wives to a local windmill. After grinding the wheat, housewives spent hours kneading dough into a standard roll or a flattened donut-like circle. Adding flour, yeast, sea-salt, and water, women spent at least a day preparing the family’s weekly ration of ħobż. Since many families preferred not to build ovens in their sun-soaked homes, wives took their unbaked bread to communal ovens once weekly. The crunchy sourdough crust kept the inside of the ħobż super soft for one week.
…And Eat it, Too
Visit any Maltese café and you’ll find some version of ħobż, whether it skirts a bowl of rabbit stew or is sliced with butter and washed down by a pint of freshly squeezed orange juice. The best way is to order ħobż is in “ftira tal-ħemi,” referred to just as “ftira.” Classic ftira is made with a slightly sweeter bread called “hobz biz-zejt.” Today, nearly all ftira sandwiches are made with cheaper, crunchier ħobż. A standard ftira contains “kunserva” (an herbed tomato spread), local tuna, olives, capers, and oil in an open ħobż roll. As the island opens to foreign influences, many restaurants serve modern versions with gluten-free ħobż and vegetarian substitutions. Standard ftira sandwiches are sold in nearly every street vendor, café, and high-end lunch place in the city. They cost around €1.10. Add a Cisk lager for €1, sit in the sun, and enjoy one of the best low-budget dining experiences in Europe.
There are a few things to beware of when seeking ħobż malti. Do not be tempted to swipe the seemingly untouched rolls set outside house fronts during morning trash collection days. While the bagged ħobż perched on top of other black trash bags seems to be fresh, no upstanding Maltese citizen wastes good bread. After one week, ħobż goes bad. Then it smells like putrid eggs and is stiffer than a block of Maltese limestone. Less scary but equally upsetting, beware the proportion of ħobż-to-filler in ftira. An ftira with too much bread will result in a tired jaw and dry mouth. Moreover, one should never choose ftira while dining for business. The bread is dusted with flour that inevitably lands on the tip of your nose and top of your suit collar.
Like chips in England or tacos in Mexico, ħobż is that one Maltese food that you can depend on no matter your budget or the situation. Passed through centuries of rickety windmills and communal ovens, edited to fit more creative modern palates, anyone who takes care with their ħobż malti order will be a happy diner indeed.
Emily Stewart is an insatiably curious merrymaker and busy-body.
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Special thanks to Paul K. Porter, who's pictures appear most frequently on the site, for being the best yoga retreat photographer EVER.