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Going the whole hog

Guze
Old Bakery Street,
Valletta

Food: 8/10
Location: 8/10
Service: 7/10
Value: 8/10
Overall: 8/10

You know you’re pigging out when you’ve got a mound of steaming wild boar pasta sitting temptingly before you and will shortly be following that up with a pork degustation for main course. I was, indeed, going the whole hog.

Never boorish, wild boar is a magnificent meat, quite unique in its rich, gamey flavour and distinctive texture. Tastewise, it could best be described as a heavenly hybrid of venison and organic pork. Guze’s wild boar pasta is a meat lover’s dream. The broad ribbons of fresh pappardelle tossed with wild boar in a sumptuous, truffle-infused sauce were quite fabulous, heaving with robust, earthy flavours. This full-bodied pasta titan makes for an incredibly hearty dish – the ideal antidote to the chill of an icy evening.

Once hunted dangerously close to extinction in Britain and other parts of Europe, genuine authentic wild boar is a prized delicacy – a beast of the woods and forests that is superior in quality and flavour in comparison to farmed wild boar.

Joining me in my journey of reverence to the pig, my dining companion, also of the pork persuasion, had ordered a starter of pulled pork and pumpkin risotto. But this dish was by no means hogging the limelight. The rice in question was carnaroli, a risotto rice that differs to the more familiar arborio rice variety, being firmer in texture and higher in starch content. This has led many to hail delicate carnaroli as the caviar of Italian rice – however, you wouldn’t have known it from this dish. Execution was very mediocre. The pulled pork displayed satisfactory texture, but the trademark luxurious, creamy moistness of a good risotto was lacking. Its dry denseness and weak flavours failing to excite, this was far from being a homogenous mass of risotto, glamorously glossy and unctuous.

The local pork degustation comprised three relatively cheap porcine cuts of belly, cheek and shank. I am a great believer in snout-to-tail eating which entails devouring practically everything except the pig’s squeal. But, due to this growing culinary trend, cheaper cuts such as these are gradually becoming more expensive.

There is nothing novel about this gastronomic movement. The concept of no wastage and the very practice of consuming every part of an animal is an old one enjoying a fashionable comeback, a modern-day rebirth. Although not necessarily choice parts, pork belly, cheek and shank are nonetheless extremely flavoursome cuts of meat. Hesitant dining companion was pleased to find no daunting pieces of pork on the plate. A trotter would have left him terrified.

This is food that feels right. I felt utterly satisfied

Locally-produced pork is of good quality and this tasty dish definitely did it justice. Gorgeous in every way, it was a coming together of beautiful ingredients – the perfect balance of moreish flavours and tantalising textures.

Swathed in plenty of fat, the luxurious pork belly was rich and fabulously fatty with beautiful soft flesh, unctuous as ever. Often overlooked, meaty pork shanks can be quite something. Well-marbled meat surrounds bone and marrow, adding to the gelatinous goodness. Guze’s offering had been cooked to lip-smacking perfection, yielding achingly tender, flavourful meat.

Another cheap cut, the pork cheek, that gives us that delectable Italian cured meat, guanciale, was fork-tender with meat that just fell apart, the fork slipping in like butter. Fairly lean, yet marvellously moist, the cheek meat was likewise meltingly tender and incredibly flavourful. Taken as whole, the pork degustation presented a superb display of fresh Maltese produce – a beautifully executed plate of food that reached intensely savoury heights.

Dining companion had not persisted in pandering to my porcine desires. Nevertheless, he stayed true to his Maltese roots, having ordered the dish of local rabbit. Leg and loin were up for grabs.

The rabbit leg confit had been brilliantly prepared, slow cooking having tenderised the meat to such an extent that it was luscious and succulent, cleanly falling away from the bone; the fine texture and sweet, delicate flavour of quality rabbit meat shining through.

Complementing the leg of rabbit was the moist guanciale wrapped loin, filled with a leek and cabbage stuffing which, together with the cured bacon, enhanced the rabbit meat beautifully. Tying together all the dish’s elements was a final flourish of deep savouriness – a silky sauce of bold, concentrated intensity.

The maitre d’ had disappeared into the night. We felt his absence early  in the evening upon realising that we had been left in the care of a couple of happily hapless waiters.

With the best of intentions, they took orders and served food with missionary zeal yet were, at times, awkward and clumsy in their delivery. Ordering dessert without the help of a menu turned into a slightly tricky affair, but we got there in the end.

And I’m delighted we did. A slab of baked cheesecake with walnuts had us stunned. Beautifully presented, it was heavenly – so scrummy that we had to stop ourselves from ordering another helping. The passion fruit panna cotta was quite lovely, presenting itself with hallmark luxuriant creaminess and indispensable firm jiggle. The tartness of the passion fruit worked beautifully with the rich, thick blandness of the cream. Panna cotta perfection had been attained.

It can get somewhat crowded at Guze. I realise this when, on leaning back ever so slightly in my chair, I fall straight into the conversation (and lap) of the person sitting at the table to my right. Unquestionably, one too many tables have been crammed into the dining space but this all adds to the exuberant charm of the place. With its exposed stone walls, rustic wooden beams and warm colours, Guze makes for a quaint, cosy den  bursting with Maltese character.

Contentment had settled at the table. This is food that feels right. I felt utterly satisfied; cocooned as I was in a bubble of snugness, supplied with an abundance of richly flavoured, lovely things that arrived in substantial platefuls. This is good, hearty cookery that fends off the longest, coldest nights of deep winter magnificently. It is sheer comfort food – well-dressed comfort food.

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