Artisan Baking at its best …

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It was such a pleasure to spend an afternoon assisting Renato Briffa produce an array of the most mouth-watering, utterly delicious traditional Maltese pastries and sweets.

Renato is a well known Pastry Chef specialising in Maltese confections. He was born and bred in Valletta and he is the third generation of a family of artisan bakers. He is one of 5 siblings and he spent most of his childhood watching and learning from his father who ran a small, very busy family-owned dolceria producing handmade Maltese pastries.

The bakery was established in 1955 and was based in the heart of the City in Old Mint Street. His brother and two sisters also learnt the tricks of the trade and all the family worked in the bakery. Renato explains that he never compromises on quality and he only uses premium organic ingredients sourced from the very best producers. For many locals, these are the sweets they would imagine eating when they were kids. These confections are truly from a bygone era, some forgotten by the younger generation brought up in a world of trendy cupcakes and red velvet.

Renato works effortlessly creating a selection of bespoke pastries oozing with goodness, some of which are hard to find in local confectionaries but they are still baked at home for family gatherings. He crafts each morsel by hand using minimal technology. There are no short cuts, no ready mixes, additives or substitutes. The recipes are well guarded secrets that have been handed down by his father and indeed the proof is in the pudding!

He grinds, whips, bakes, layers and pipes and within a few hours we are presented with a feast. An exquisite fragrant aroma of roasted almonds, rose water, oranges and honey lingers in the air. These are the pastries of dreams!

Renato speaks passionately about the history of these sweet delights and our tasting session becomes a cultural journey taking us back to the old Malta as each bite seems to have a story linked to local religious holidays and festas. I am encouraged to taste and eat….

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I feast my eyes on ‘Xkunvat’ which consists of swirls, ribbons and knots of aniseed pastry dripping with local honey and sprinkled with coloured vermicelli and delicate pastel sugar butterflies. A work of art in itself, it is nearly a pity to see it devoured so quickly!

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The ‘Kwarezimal’ is an out of the world experience. I say this as although I love making sweets, I am not a huge fan of eating them but this is irresistible. Freshly ground almonds, cinnamon, rose water and citrus peel are the main ingredients of these biscuits which are traditionally eaten during the forty days of lent. They are drizzled with Maltese honey and if eaten in moderation, this could be a healthy cookie or even a breakfast bar as they are fat free and contain no eggs!

Out comes the “Qubbajt” or nougat that is usually sold at villages stalls during a festa. Renato makes his own version – a mix of almonds, pistachios and cherries sunken in a luscious, soft, chewy marshmallow texture covered with Belgian chocolate. They are divine.

Then we have three show stoppers… A gorgeous, golden Hazlenut and Thyme Honey Tart bursting with flavour, topped with caramelized, plump red cherries; Strawberry and Almond Flan with large succulent strawberries that have been freshly picked in the morning from the agricultural village of Mgarr… and Marmurat Tart with home made candid peel from blood red Maltese oranges, vanilla extracted from its pod and even more almonds enveloped in Cuban Cocoa from Baracoa. This tart is always a hit in Malta but not so readily available. It was traditionally baked on a wedding day and nowadays it is made during the Christmas season.

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Then I taste a moist and soft chocolate bite, almost like a healthy brownie that has been transformed from local stale bread into the ‘Pudina tal Hobz’. This was traditionally baked on Mondays by frugal housewives, a perfect recipe to use up leftovers after a weekend. Made with cocoa, mixed spice and eggs, dredged with toasted freshly grated coconut, you can be creative and literally add any other sweet leftovers or larder supplies that take your fancy. It is so fresh and moreish that it is difficult to stop eating.

I try some slices of pastry rings filled with treacle and citrus peel, aniseed and orange flower water known as “Qaghaq ta’ l-Ghasel” or Honey Rings. This is probably the most commonly found pastry in local bakeries and is very popular during the Christmas Season.

There is even more, Sweet ‘Qassatat’, Christening Biscuits, Sesame Rings and piped Almond Macaroons or ‘Biskuttini tal- Lewz’…

Sweets make people happy and the enticingly rich and beautiful nutty flavours of the Mediterranean have welcomed me this afternoon. Baking is fun and this has been an inspirational experience. Malta is an island steeped in history with a rich cultural heritage and these pastries reflect the deep rooted generosity and goodwill of the Maltese, their warm and friendly spirit. These pastries have been baked and prepared from the heart.

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This article appeared in the June 2013 issue of Bizzilla, Air Malta’s inflight magazine.
Photography : James Bianchi

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8 thoughts on “Artisan Baking at its best …

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