A Slice of Life

5 November 2018

A Slice of Life

Words Sarah Chircop

Photography Lisa Attard

Shall I show you just how long I’ve been working here?said Joe, with a twinkle in his eye and a side-mouthed smile, as he made his way to the hole in the wall at the back of the room. Before I could react, his smile grew bigger as he opened the small oven door, carefully removing the hanging lamp in one all-too-familiar gesture. Looking over his shoulder to see if I was still watching, he plunged his bare hands into the fire and pulled out a large rectangular dish. I couldn’t see what was in it and nor did I care in that moment. Clearly enjoying his trickery, he calmly and coolly walked over to the wooden table and placed the dish down. That’s how long I’ve been here.A slight moment of disbelief followed by admiration, awe, and minor concern, I smiled back at Joe and continued to inspect his hands before I turned to the sweet smelling dish he had just retrieved.

Joe il-furnar (the baker) has been working in the bakery that belonged to his grandmother for over fifty years. He is a sweet-smiling man whose stature speaks more of his work than he does. Large scalded hands, blood shot eyes and a body that has clearly spent long hours on its feet, Joe is what you perhaps can call your traditional Maltese baker. His bakery is in Ħal Qormi, a village in the south of the island that was once filled with so many bakeries that it earned the alternative name of ‘Casal Fornaro’ (Bakery Town) by The Knights of Malta. It has even been marked that way on English maps.

Holidays in Malta 

The art of bread-making has changed little, if at all, over the centuries. The importance of bread in the Maltese diet has too remained of utmost reputation. A significant part of everyday life once revolved around the wheat harvest and its success or failure meant survival or famine. Archaeological studies have also shown that the presence of bread goes as far back as the New Stone Age. So you get it. We love our bread and we love to make it.

Joe’s bakery is simple, yet full of charm. A large first room with a wooden table to the left, where balls of dough are shaped and prepared for baking as early as 3am, and a stack of wood to your right lay ready for the hungry oven. The diamond in this rough is right in the centre – il-forn; a large wood-burning, stone and metal oven built into the wall with a metal door that opens into a wide furnace. A fire burns in the stone chamber next door and is connected by an opening that allows heat to flow in and kiss the raw dough to life. In the back room, where one can find an old wooden mixer that was once operated by a donkey, Joe prepares the recipes for traditional Maltese bread, il-ħobża; a crusted loaf that is full of air holes and soft pastry inside as well as il-ftira; a bread completely flattened into a disc with a hole torn in the middle and sesame seeds spread on top. But he also makes smaller breads and sweet biscuits too.

Holidays in Malta 

It’s late morning at the bakery, Joe has almost finished yet another shift and now placidly slices Maltese loaves, one after the other, while tending to his daily customers. We chat. He is happy to answer any questions I have and sometimes sporadically spills a bit of fiction or non-fiction about his life and work. At this hour, his bakery is less about the baker and more about the people. A tall man bustles in, his van left running outside, as he places an empty tray on the table and loads it with fresh bread. He smiles curiously at me and hurries off to continue his delivery of daily bread. That’s my son,says Joe thank God for his help around here… I’m not what I used to be you know.

A small man with a big personality bursts into the room, cutting another chat short. He’s here to pick up his lunch – half a head of pork with baked potatoes. Joe’s oven is also used by locals to cook their home-prepared dishes, for the bargain price of a euro. But the pork is not yet ready, he must sit patiently and wait a while longer, happy to join the ongoing conversation, answering more questions, with more anecdotes. A small woman announces herself, asking about her pudding and telling me of her younger years working in a bakery, whilst another local simply strolls up to the shop’s doorway to lean against it and watch life pass by. Everyone speaks at once, everyone tells you their story, everyone is connected to this man and his bakery. 

All of today’s bread has been delivered, dishes have been picked up and it is time to call it a day. I’ll see you down at the bar for a whiskey later.shouts the half head of pork. I choose a loaf, pay its humble price and bid farewell to Joe and his bakery, not to mention Jesus, Mary and Elvis on the wall. The loaf is still warm and all I want to do is drizzle olive oil and smear tomato paste all over it, and eat it with olives, capers, sun-dried tomatoes, local cheese and fresh basil. These are the ingredients that go with your Maltese bread during your holidays in Malta, but it’s up to your taste and character to put them together. Just remember, il-ftira sħuna tajba(you’re going to have to look that one up).

Holidays in Malta 

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