Dear Internet: Malta Discovered Sourdough Long Before You Did

At the start of the first pandemic lockdowns in early 2020, a curious thing happened on social media: everyone suddenly discovered sourdough bread. 

This must have been absolutely baffling to bakers, baked food enthusiasts and basically anyone in the Mediterranean. Did you guys not already know that sourdough is the tastiest bread? But no – for mysterious reasons (possibly a desperate need for one of those reassuringly everyday Internet absurdities to be part of), everyone started baking sourdough and sharing it, particularly on Twitter. 

(For example, here’s British journalist Hugo Rifkind proudly sharing his latest sourdough creation like it’s breaking news.)

It’s hard now to remember how fixated everyone was on this thing. I have a friend in the United Stated who works in microbiology, and she told me that Microbiology Twitter was quietly obsessed with creating the perfect sourdough starter, using science. And one popular tweet lamented: “My boyfriend has asked me to sleep on the sofa so his sourdough starter can keep warm in our bed. How do I fix this?”

So please, spare a thought for Malta. Not only has this Mediterranean island nation been quietly (but famously) making some of the best sourdough bread in the world for hundreds of years, it’s also responsible for some of its best sandwiches you’ll find anywhere. 

Malta sourdough bread
Malta sourdough bread

If you’re from the UK, the US or Canada, it’s important here to cast aside any preconceptions you may have around the word “sandwich”. We’re not talking about underwhelming potted meats and some token leafy green clutched between two damp squares of processed white bread, then cut into triangles because at least half the sandwich-eating world thinks it’ll make them taste better. Those rules do not apply. 

We’re talking Maltese rules here. And as you’ll discover if you join us for our 2023 LiveAways programme on the island (currently in development here), Malta takes this topic very seriously indeed – albeit in the way where the seriousness doesn’t get in the way of any of the enjoyment and fun.

Maltese sourdough bread is called ftira, and to make it, all you need is good Maltese flour, a sourdough starter (consult a baker or obsessive microbiologist) and, perhaps most importantly,  a lot of time. Preparing a loaf of ftira from scratch should take you about a week – which is why everyone goes to the ftira bakers scattered all over Malta’s 316 square kilometers. Best left to the professionals unless you have lots of time to burn at home (say, during a pandemic lockdown)…

Good ftira, like the best sourdough, is a revelation for a palate accustomed to what’s often disparagingly called sliced or sandwich bread. There’s none of the same faintly sticky blandness, and it doesn’t dissolve at first contact with anything watery. Instead, you’ll be eating something firm but light, with a chewy crust and a body filled with holes. It’s a unique taste – and UNESCO agrees, because in 2020 it included it in the prestigious Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Malta’s sourdough tradition is indeed that significant.

Gozitan Ftira
Gozitan Ftira

The same can be said for everything the Maltese make from ftira. Take Gozitan Ftira, the pizza-like flatbread harking from the smaller of the two main islands of the Maltese peninsula. It’s served with a topping of some combination of sliced roast potatoes, tomatoes, fish, egg, sausage, cheese, capers and olives. It looks like pizza – but the sourdough base gives it a very different taste to what you’re used to.

But the real highlight here is the sandwich. It’s such a staple that you’ll see it called “Maltese Ftira,” appropriating the name of the bread it’s made from – and it’s usually based around fresh tuna. Again, this isn’t the half-hearted tuna sandwich that’s famous (or infamous) elsewhere: this is a great fresh wedge of a thing, surprisingly light for its size (thanks to all those holes in the bread itself) and offering something more akin to a meal than a snack.

But – look at the word I had to use there: “sandwich”. It’s coined after England’s John Montagu, the 4th Earl Of Sandwich (1718-1792), with the suggestion that it was he who invented the idea of putting a tasty filling between two pieces of bread. Considering the oldest bread in the world is 14,400 years old, this is a ludicrous and possibly insulting leap of logic to make, and recorded history is strewn with examples of bread being used to house a meal. 

Malta Ftira
Malta Ftira

(Take the medieval “trencher,” a flat round of bread used as a replacement for tableware, which could be eaten afterwards. A superb idea, with ties to the hand pie and Cornish pasty, that would be terrific for cutting down on disposable paper & plastic plates – and therefore much in need of a triumphant comeback?)

It’s not known how far back Malta’s ftira traditions go – but it’s known that schiaccata (flattened bread) was being supplied to slaves in the 16th century, during a time when the island was under the control of the Knights Hospitaller. This Catholic military order used the island as their headquarters after being driven off the island of Rhodes by the expanding Ottoman empire. 

There are currently no earlier references to sourdough-like breads – but considering that breadmaking on Malta goes back to the Phoenician period (725-218 BC), and further considering that nearby Sicily has archaeological evidence of breadmaking going back 7,000 years and that Malta has a long history of importing grain from it…well, it’s unlikely to be a recent invention.

Now the digital world is newly sourdough-obsessed, and since England has been proudly & incorrectly describing itself as the birthplace of the sandwich for hundreds of years now, you have to wonder what the Maltese think of all this. We’ll be sure to ask them next year.

Join Wheel & Anchor in 2023 for a relaxing month in the historically rich island of Malta in the Mediterranean. More details forthcoming here.

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