A tasty dash of nostalgia
Nenu – The Artisan Baker
143, St Dominic Street,
Tel: 2258 1535
I have often expressed my love for our capital city. The word ‘unique’ applies to it in the best of senses for the most part. It also applies to it in the ‘uniquely bizarre’ sense as well.
The better sense normally applies to the bits of it created by our forefathers (who despite a vow of celibacy managed to be our forefathers anyway), while the stranger bits have been added later by our contemporaries.
To be fair, not all is bad. I am totally sold on the idea of adding pedestrian areas here and there and practically everywhere. The tiny peninsula that Valletta has been built upon deserves to be visited on foot to be fully appreciated and obesity statistics show that we can do withthe additional walk.
On my way to lunch I walked down Merchants Street, all the way from Castille to the intersection with St Dominic Street. The landscape changes quite abruptly where the pedestrian area ends but the first bit is looking great.
I snapped quick photos of shop signs that have escaped modernisation and hoped fervently that the few that remain manage to escape for a good while longer.
I noticed that the eateries that probably struggled a little when cars could pass through have now been able to flourish. Neat little corrals have been allocated to some of them so one can enjoy lunch (dinner is out of the question in what becomes a ghost town by night) al fresco.
They were all occupied by tourists who roasted gently in the midday sun. Chairs and tables, all matching, have been given the green light. Umbrellas or any form of shade from the sun haven’t. That’s what I mean by bizarre. Walking past, you can practically smell the poor holiday makers as they go from rare to medium. I wonder what sun screen tastes like as a marinade.
At St Dominic Street I took a right and made it to Nenu – The Artisan Baker. I have heard all sorts of good things about the place and have been told that it is high time I paid theplace a visit.
I had popped in for a quick ftira some time ago and loved it, so a more complete meal was in order. The ftira had reminded me of something my Dad used to buy back when I was young and everything was in black and white so I asked whether he’d join and vouch for the authenticity.
He quite quickly agreed and, chaperoned by the Mum, joined my quest.
They hesitated for a moment when faced by the entrance that is floored entirely in glass. Below the glass an exhibition has been set up, with waxwork type models that recreate a scene from a bakery in the past. The effect is that of a museum that has a fully-fledged restaurant to feed its guests.
The staircase that leads down to the restaurant itself is also made of clear glass and the entire effect is of a minimal aesthetic intervention to the meticulously restored stonework. Some careful and clever planning was at work here and the result really works.
Stone arches, stone walls and baking accoutrements make up the majority of the décor, with minimal use of modern materials where the old just wouldn’t do the trick. A smart young man greeted us and led us to a table, popping back with menus and taking our orders for drinks.
These were brought to our table by a young lady wearing a headscarf as part of a traditional Maltese costume. I am not quite sure this does the trick for me but then this place is probably one of the waypoints on the tourist track so these faux quainttouches are inevitable.
Menus are extensive and packed with traditional Maltese food. A significant portion of the menu is dedicated to the ftira and this refers not to the flat, circular loaf. The ‘traditional’ ftira ismore like a rectangular pizzawith a base made of the dough used for the Maltese loaf and topped with staples from ourtraditional larder.
Vegetables, ġbejna, sausage, anchovies, olives, capers, sun-dried tomatoes and such like are all available in a number of pre-defined combinations.
The rest of the menu contains the expected ravjul, fried rabbit, braġoli and baked pasta as well as some less commonly encountered dishes like tripe stew.I am summarising quite aggressively here. There is something here for everyone.
The menu layout makes itquite clear that leaving this place without trying one of the ftajjar – particularly considering that the restaurant is built around an existing, wood-burning stone oven bakery – would be unthinkable.
We agreed we’d share one to startwith and move on to the other items. My dad and I were sold on the kirxa, the traditional tripe stew. My mum took an easier way out and picked the soppa ta’ l-armla, a soup that is made of vegetables like marrows and peas (depending on what’s in season) that is typically served with a poached egg or cheeselets.
Within minutes a wooden board with fresh bread, bigilla, kunserva and a mixture of chopped onion and tomato was served to keep hungerat bay while the rest of our food was prepared.
As expected of a bakery, the bread was very fresh and a reminder of what makes our traditional loaf something of a legend. The sides were just as fresh and authentic and, as much as we wanted to keep room in our belly for the rest of the food,we could not stop until we’d cleared the board.
No sooner had the last crumbs been consumed, the ftira was served, divided into manageable portions. Topped with bell peppers, courgettes, ġbejna, olives and tomatoes, this Maltese take on the pizza was really a throwback to my childhood memories.
I’d have picked the one with anchovies to really fit the bill but I was sharing so I just behaved democratically and accepted the consensus. The base is somehow very light and airy and the toppings generous and fresh. I can picture myself devouring an entire ftira if it were the only component of a meal but as things worked out, I was happy to eat a third of it and leave roomfor the kirxa.
By the time we’d cleared the board there were smiles all around and my fears at having raised expectations unnecessarily were finally put to bed.
Our main courses turned up next, served quite impressively on long, wooden boards that hosted three bowls each. In the case of the tripe stew, one bowl contained the stew itself, the other bore gorgeously roasted potatoes and the third held seasoned toast.
Trembling, I tried the tripe and took a trip down memory lane. While not exactly a dish for the squeamish, it is as traditional as Maltese cooking can get. The stew has a pleasant curry baseand has been slow cooked to unbelievable tenderness.
I added bits of tripe to the toast, that in turn soaked up the curry-flavoured goo. A sideways glance at my dad was enough to see that he was as happy as I was.
The soppa ta’ l-armla was just as lovely. One bowl contained the soup, another bowl contained poached eggs and ġbejna and a third held delicately seasoned boiled potatoes. Once again, the portion was generous, tasted just like my grandma’s kitchen and had been prepared with fresh ingredients and lots of love.
We finished off the meal with what the menu refers to as Maltese coffee. Brewed with plenty of cloves and a hint of cinnamon, the coffee is served in a kettle and transparent glasses, just like the te fit-tazza that is still served in snack bars around the Islands.
The parting shot was just as delightful. The bill for all that did not quite make the €50 mark. We were stuffed like a qassata and had eaten excellent food. This cunning artisan has what it takes to drag our history gracefully into the 21st century at a price that has remained rooted in history.
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