With its year-round mild temperatures, millennia of history, layers of cultural influence, and easy-going, English-speaking people, it is no surprise to see Malta re-emerge as a red-hot travel destination for 2024. However, it is the country’s burgeoning fine-dining scene that is positioning it as a must-visit food destination for the cultured traveler.
The country’s capital Valletta, a UNESCO World Heritage Site is a stunningly beautiful ‘open-air museum’ that is worth the trip alone. Cast your gaze upwards while walking the medieval streets and you will be rewarded with breathtaking glimpses of wooden balconies and the glowing amber limestone facades of imperial buildings as they catch the setting sun. The city is standing in for Rome as a backdrop in Ridley Scott’s ‘Gladiator 2’, currently being filmed, something which is certain to increase tourist attention. But there are countless layers of history to be peeled back here, from one of Europe’s most ancient peoples, to Phoenicians and Carthage, the Romans, Normans, Napoleon and of course the evident British influence.
For all its Mediterranean charm, its layers of cultural influence, its complexities and unashamed beauty, it is only now beginning to fully realise its potential as a fine-dining destination. The Michelin Guide only arrived in Malta in 2020 and the latest edition awarded stars to six Maltese restaurants, with three of these located in Valletta. There is a crop of culinary talent now in Malta that has trained in some of the world’s best kitchens, who are ready to put their best feet forward in a high-end restaurant scene that, while small, is both mature and accomplished.
Dishes at Under Grain. Photo: Brian Grech
Of the new wave of Maltese culinary talent, you can look to chef Victor Borg as the trailblazer. He can lay claim to the title of godfather of Maltese fine dining having trained and worked with many of the top chefs now receiving plaudits in the country. Borg followed a passion for cooking on a journey that took him to work in several important kitchens, including under Gordon Ramsay at Aubergine in London and at two Michelin-starred Bagatelle, in Oslo. It is entirely appropriate that Borg acts as a judge on the new Maltese MasterChef, even if his severe, tough, on-screen persona is at odds with his real-life, big-hearted personality.
Today, Borg is Executive chef at Michelin-starred Under Grain, located in the AX Rosselli hotel on Merchant Street. Take a lift to the cellar of the boutique hotel and you find a cool oasis of refinement, where the chef serves a sophisticated tasting menu supported by an excellent wine list and professional, attentive staff. Rosselli is part of the AX Group, a hospitality business founded by Angelo Xuereb and today run by the family, comprised of seven hotels, with another nearing completion, and 20 restaurants. Under Grain is their flagship.
With a strong and deep-rooted belief in classical French cooking, there are personal touches, but Borg is a chef who refuses to play with his food.
Chef Victor Borg
“I’m classically based,” he says. “So, I don’t like to play with food too much, flavor is always the most important thing, but it must be presented well. I don’t believe in elaborating the food too much like molecular cuisine, but of course, we have a modern touch in our kitchen. My style of cooking is very old school. I like strong flavors, definitely more of a French influence than anything else.”
For an island nation like Malta, which is subjected to long dry, hot summers, where biodiversity is low – none of Malta’s indigenous forest remains – the reality is that there is a limited amount of local ingredients to choose from. Of course, the fish is excellent and so is the pork, but if Borg wants to serve his guests the best, he has to look elsewhere.
“We use a lot of ingredients that come from France,” he says. “We try to select the best that we can find on the island, but I’m not the kind of chef that is going to tell you that all ingredients are local because it’s impossible. Malta is so dry, you would end up with no choices, rabbit, fish and pork every night.”
ION Harbour by Simon Rogan
Malta has always been a trading nation, with a proud and very ancient history, and its people have always looked to surrounding countries for food imports. Sicily is a stone’s throw away, as is Tunisia. In a globalized and open world, you must balance sustainability with availability.
Valetta is home to three Michelin-starred restaurants, half of Malta’s six in total. Noni bears the nickname of chef-owner Jonathan Brincat, where he serves refined Maltese and Mediterranean cuisine in a modern and lively setting. ION Harbour by Simon Rogan is a new edition to the city’s starred fine-dining scene by the chef of the UK’s L’Enclume and is set on the fourth floor of a hotel, overlooking the Grand Harbour.
If you venture to the impressive medieval city of Mdina, you can find de Mondion, where another approach to Maltese cooking leans heavily on tradition, with great attention to detail. In Sliema, just outside Valletta, Fernandõ Gastrotheque serves elegant, French bistro-style cuisine. If you venture to the island’s centre, you can find Bahia, where chef Tyrone Mizzi takes diners on a journey into Malta’s past and future.
As a food destination, however, Malta offers more than the exalted fine dining of its acclaimed restaurants. One of Borg’s favourites is Is-Serkin – Crystal Palace Bar, in Rabat. This is a quintessential Maltese greasy spoon, where all kinds of people come at all hours of day and night to eat traditional pastizzi, a type of savory pastry with a range of fillings, but most commonly ricotta. You won’t find barista-style coffee here, instead, the kettle boils on a portable gas stove for Styrofoam cups of instant coffee with condensed milk. When the weather is hot, people drink Kinnie, a bittersweet soft drink made from bitter oranges and wormwood extract. A uniquely Maltese and perfectly delicious experience.
With Valletta’s reputation as a destination for food lovers set to rise in 2024, people will come to the city for the breathtaking beauty and layer-upon-layer of cultural influence. For food lovers though, Malta is a destination that is worth discovering.