Conquest by bambinella

Conquest by bambinella

When's the last time you nibbled on a tasty bambinella? If you're British and buy your food on the high street, chances are you're doing that right now. The story, exclusive to all the local press, broke with the radiance of a Perseid meteor shower: 'Maltese bambinella fruit a success at London's Marks and Spencer'.

Silly season? I'd say not. The question is: Why did a few crates of bambinella down at M&S make the news in such a big way? It becomes even more pressing when we consider that, on most counts, this was a non-event. Malta exports millions of euros worth of goods every year, and the newspapers (thankfully) hardly carry all the details. Not to mention what the Chinese press would look like if it were to run roll-calls of exports. Why then the bambinella?

Many readers will remember Dom Mintoff's capers. Sometime in the misty 1970s, the legend goes, Mintoff decided to unleash the power of the Maltese caper on non-aligned world cuisine. The paramilitaries were mobilised and the shrubs planted, and before you could say 'bud' a consignment of the delicacy was on its way heaven knows where (North Korea? Or was it Romania?). Except, when the jars were opened at destination, their contents failed to tickle even the blandest of socialist palates. The capers had, alas, turned mouldy.

I honestly don't how much of this story is true; it may, in fact, be completely apocryphal. The reason I bring it is because it has sunk into the popular imagination in a most fascinating way. For Nationalists, it stands as a master narrative of Mintoff's series of pathetic attempts to make it big on the world stage (a 'baby rattling the sides of the cot', some used to say).

Thirty years on, boy we've changed. The dismal quality, mouldy buds, paramilitaries, and North Korean taste buds are no more. Instead it's high standards, blushing bambinella, competitive farmers, and Marks and Sparks no less.

There, I've given the game away and answered the question. The reason the story of the well-travelled bambinella so did the rounds is that it is implicitly a political narrative. What I'm not saying is that the news editors met in a dark alley and decided to sell it. What I am saying is that we can, and should, read into it a tacit tale of who we are and where we stand.

It helps that no one seems to know what bambinella is called in English, or any other language for that matter. Calling it a 'mini-pear' is a bit like calling pastizzi 'cheesecakes', i.e. a non-starter. This makes it a quintessentially Maltese product, which is a promising starting point for our argument.

Unlike O-rings or silicon chips, bambinella is also a product of the soil. Which makes its export very relevant, for there is something special about local produce. The French obsession with terroir, and the universal one with subsidising agriculture, say it all. Home-grown represents the link between a patch of land (Malta in this case) and a people.

Which also happens to be what local identities - such as nationalism - are mostly about. Exporting local products, especially if they are unique, becomes a metaphor for exporting the essence of a people. Bambinella is us.

Besides, for us Maltese it means something special. It's the old centre of empire. The way to an empire's heart is through its stomach, some have said, and bambinella has turned out a seductive titbit. It's also M&S, which for generations of Maltese meant the paragon of all that was well-made, the flagship British institution.

The story of the bambinella also has the attire of a morality play. I loved the bit on European standards and the M&S people inspecting the first cautious samples for rogue pesticides and whatnot. And the side-plot of the few growers whose fruit didn't sell because they persist in using nasty chemicals.

The 'good' farmers, whose bambinella made the grade; the 'bad' ones, who had to dump the unsellable on us; and the M&S inspectors and British customers, all-knowing and infinitely good. One would be hard pressed to come up with a better morality play for our times.

I emphasise 'our times', because the bambinella blurb also tells us something about globalisation, so to speak. First, it tells us that, contrary to 'global village' waffle and such nonsense, place still matters. It is still important - maybe more than ever, in fact - for a small-island people to feel relevant on an ambitious scale. Political analysts in the 1970s would have said that it matters for the periphery to appropriate the centre. Nowadays we prefer to talk in terms of spaces of power and difference within the so-called 'global' space.

Second, there is something alluring - if seemingly paradoxical - about a multi-national supermarket chain granting the seal of approval to a local product. It is as if the local is being valued through the circuitous route of the global. Some call it 'glocalisation'. Call it what you will, it's no silly-season song.

The day may yet dawn when the word 'bambinella' is added to the Oxford English Dictionary. Maltese farmers would have much to celebrate. After all, it's a while since our colonial experience contributed 'faldetta' and 'karozzin' to the tongue of the big world power.

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