A Taste of Tradition
With enough manouevering, six people can fit inside the heart of Falzon Bakery.
Tucked away behind the Parish Church of St Paul in Rabat sharing the street with an odd-job shop and a row of residential houses, Falzon Bakery is always open. Pass by at any time of night or day, and the doorway will always be propped ajar, the counter will always be manned, and the cavernous oven that swallows up much of the space beyond the display will still be lit.
The air constantly smells of bread, with that bitter smoky bite to it.
Three bare tiles and a pot-bellied climate-controlled fridge separate the pavement from the inner works of the bakery. The fridge has pastries in it: sugar-crusted doughnuts, glossy blueberry muffins, glazed dead man’s bones, racks of tiny desserts. These are the outliers here.
Further in, there is nothing but bread.
Maltese loaves, with a cracked, floury crust, knots of ‘snail-shell’ buns, still soft and warm from the oven, baguettes like sabres, thick, pillowy slabs of brioche – bread, bread, bread on every shelf.
You can chart Maltese history through bread.
Bakeries were the soul of small villages, and Maltese families based their survival on the availability, price, and quality of bread. At the earliest stages of habitation, sometime around 5,000 BC, research and evidence shows that Maltese farmers grew wheat, barley, and lentils, and crushed it in crude hand-mills. When the Romans took over, the Maltese diet experienced an upswing in the quantity of bread that families received: an Annonna, a regulatory system, hiked up the price of grain, but also made sure that no needy family wanted for food.
More than meat, butter, and olive oil, bread was the Maltese measure against starvation, enough that Roman-era coins were stamped with an effigy of grain and dedicated to Prosperina, goddess of fertility and agriculture.
Bakeries were the soul of small villages, and Maltese families based their survival on the availability, price, and the quality of bread.
In the Middle Ages, when money was scarce and barley wheat plentiful, people made their barley into bread and ate it with cheese, or dipped into a poor man’s soup. On the other side of the economic bracket, the rich made wheat bread with pork and roast beef. Around Europe, the same story played out: the rich ate bread and good food, and the poor ate bread and whatever they could find.
Grain was imported wholesale from Sicily, and the weight of it was more precious than gold. Records show that bread was more than just food; it could be bartered for services, or used to pay off a debt.
As the population of Malta continued to rise, the quantity of grain that Malta could produce was not sufficient. When the Knights took over the island, Malta’s land had started to implode under the increased demand of the population, and importing grain from Sicily was the only means they could think of to support hungry mouths. Grain ordered by bakers were delivered with escorting officers, so as to make sure that the grain delivered was baked into bread as quickly as possible, and stop a revolution from taking place.
In 1917, armed officers weren’t enough. Bakers, concerned with the rising prices of wheat, staged an industrial action. It snowballed into the Sette Giugno riots.
For around 3,000 years of history, Maltese bakeries have been making the Maltese loaf.
Most bakeries are family-run. The knowledge is passed from father to child, to their grand-children, and to their great-grand-children. Recipes aren’t written down, they’re memorised, and passed on faithfully from generation to generation.
The bakery feels like a home.
Falzon Bakery is run by two brothers from Qormi. Their father set up this bakery in Rabat and helped carry the machines as he moved from the old bakery in Qormi. At some point, in days gone by, the front room would have been a parlour, and the oven itself extends to the area where a kitchen might have stood in previous years.
Now, the walls are tiled in egg-white, and the room is cramped with decades-old machines that work like they did when they were new. A set of white-washed weighing scales, perpetually coated in a floury skin, rest on a countertop. The smallest measurement, for incremental amounts of salt, is 100g.
Today, we’re going back to our roots by experimenting with using a traditional Maltese sourdough bread recipe to make a pizza base. We will debut our sourdough pizzas at SIGMA, as part of our new street food stall concept.
If you want to do something well, you go to an expert. Falzon Bakery’s loaves are legendary in Rabat: tap a knife on top of the crust, and you’ll hear the knocking of a crisp outer layer. Cut it open, and the inside is soft and fluffy. In the time our chef takes to get to Rabat, a trail of customers trickle into the bakery, catch up on the gossip at the doorstep, and then hurry back to their kitchens with the freshly baked loaves of Maltese bread.
Sourdough is a complicated beast to master. It isn’t the same as making other forms of bread, where the ingredients go into a machine, get baked in an oven, come out ready for cutting and buttering. Sourdough takes time. It needs ageing, like whiskey or wine. It needs knowledge, patience and love.
Our baker shows us the Falzon Bakery starter or tinsila. He doesn’t say how old it is, but he mentions it’s been fermenting for a couple of days – that’s what gives it its distinct bite, that almost-bitter aftertaste that adults will definitely remember from their childhood.
Sourdough is made by leavening the dough with a Lactobacillus culture and yeast. The more the dough ages, the longer the fermentation process is left to progress, and the tastier the bread. Tinsila, the Maltese word for sourdough starter, is made so that the loaf rises and stays upright.
Bryan dusts the countertop with flour, and shows us the sourdough starter specifically made for our chef. It sits in a big white bucket, flecked with foamy bubbles, pocked by air as the dough ages. Bryan says that it’s important to leave it to age somewhere cool; now that the temperature is lower, the dough can stay out, but in the hotter days, they store it in a fridge, and leave it as long as they can so that it sours.
The ratio of yeast to flour makes the dough rise more than pizza dough, and he’s interested to see if we’ll manage to make a pizza base out of a traditional sourdough starter.
At the counter, his brother passes a wrapped parcel to a patron; in the back, another worker is cleaning the oven with a long pole and a damp cloth. As soon as the cloth touches the hot stone floor, it sizzles and steams.
Back at the countertop, Bryan separates the dough into bundles of 100g each for our chef. He tells us that this is the only loaf recipe that never calls for salt as this would kill the yeast and halt the fermentation; as each loaf of bread is made using a starter from the previous loaf, there’s no need for salt. Similarly, traditional yeast is kept to a minimum.
Sourdough is a tactile dough. As Bryan’s prepping the station for our chef, he tells us that it’s important to work the dough over at least three times: this helps aerate the dough, which gives the Maltese loaf that distinctive texture of airy centre and crusty exterior.
Outside our little area, the bakery is constantly in motion. Clients pop in, or wait outside, and the bakers don’t have to hear a name or a voice; they know what the people crowding their bakery are here for. It’s a surprise when someone asks for cakes, or doughnuts, or for something from the display; most of them come for the most humble items, the loaves lining the shelves in the back.
Back inside the bakery, Bryan offers to make dough from scratch for us.
He pinches off the last of the dough for our chef, and sets the rest of the starter aside. The rest of the ingredients – yeast and flour – are poured into the bread-machine seemingly without any measure, the result of years and years of experience.
Yeast. Flour. Salt.
When his brother, Jonathan, pours in the warm water, the mixture bubbles.
They leave it. The machine makes a hum in the background. When we think it’s nearly done and the dough has risen, the baker pours in more water, and says, “it drinks up water like a sponge.”
Their primary concern is that Maltese sourdough and pizza dough are two completely different beasts. With pizza, yeast is a problem: the base for a pizza needs to be flat and crisp and lean. With Maltese bread, the fatter and softer the better, and it has more yeast than what should be put in pizza dough.
In the background, Christopher has pulled out a rolling shelf’s worth of uncooked Maltese loaves. He gives them a final, floury flourish, and then takes down what looks like a giant luzzu oar from the ceiling.
“You have to handle it carefully,” he says, “the dough looks tough, but if you squeeze too much, the dough will just collapse”.
The chef arrives as the first of the fresh loaves come out of the oven.
Andrea, our chef blasts through the front door, and straight to the countertop. A sizeable amount of dough has been left for him, but after conferring with the baker, they both come to the conclusion that it has proofed for too long. The trick, he thinks, is less time.
He asks for 80 grams of the fresh loaf that is still percolating in the machine, the dough that has aged only for a few hours.
A few minutes later, our chef has 80 grams of a freshly made dough. It hasn’t had time for the starter to work, meaning that it won’t rise as much – the desired outcome for a flat pizza base. Even so, the chef works it to a minimum, rolling it into balls of dough, and then leaves it to rest while he sets up his ingredients.
Freshly-picked basil, wet with dew; mozzarella; a glossy red sauce like a candy glaze; chunks of Maltese sausage pan-fried and studded with sesame; a rasp of coiled-up onion.
Working two at a time, our chef flattens out the dough, pinching and spreading to form a circular base. Each portion can fit onto a dessert plate, although the sizes haven’t been decided yet. For now, because this is the first time we’re working with a different dough, we go for the middle ground: not too small, not too big. Just right.
A spoonful of sauce on top. Then, the cheese lets.
Each pizza is built to echo Maltese traditions and flavours: gbejna, olives and sausages, these simple toppings will work well together.
Loaves of bread are gently ushered to the side so that space is made in the oven for the pizzas. Bryan, the baker who has been helping our chef, is excited to see how the pizza will bake with the bread, if it will give the pizza that tangy sourdough taste.
Our chef borrows the supersized oar from Christopher, the baker keeping a watchful eye on the oven.
In two sharp movements, the pizzas go into the oven. The oven door shuts.
They cook for ten minutes. It wasn’t intended that way – the chef doesn’t know the exact temperature of the oven, and the bakers can’t really tell how hot it gets. Ten minutes to start, and then checking every couple of minutes, until they’re cooked and crisped, the perfect shade of gold.
As it turns out, ten minutes is just enough. The pizzas come out steaming, crisped gold at the edges, runny cheese bubbling lightly in the centre.
They haven’t risen much, although there’s a distinctive swell at the edges that could be a loaf, maybe, if it had been left to age.
Carefully, the pizzas are placed on a wheeled countertop, as far away from the oven as possible. They’re left to rest while the chef talks with the baker.
When the first pizza is cut, steam curls from the dough. Inside, there is a hint of bubbling, of aeration.
The pizza tastes like heaven, sourdough heaven!