Changes in City Gate

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Another piece of Valletta is about to be improved.

The scruffy, shanty-town collection of kiosks and bus ticket offices circling the perimeter of the former bus terminus which converges into the bridge crossing the dry moat to City Gate have already been closed down to be demolished to make space for a pedestrianized, tree lined plaza focused round Vincenzo Apap’s bronze masterpiece, the Tritons Fountain which is also set to be returned to its former operating glory.

Sounds fantastic. Rundown, dilapidated, downright ugly and nondescript structures selling a variety of cheap foodstuffs and convenience goods. With clients to match. To be replaced by a neater, well planned, uniformly designed layout in which the pedestrian is king.

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The demolishing of these eyesores, ugly and unloved as they are, cannot but also raise a tinge of nostalgic regret in me. A nostalgia comprising half a century of memories of a location which is central to the lives of the majority of the Maltese. A location which for decades has served not only as the fulcrum of the Island’s public transport network, but also as the meeting point for friends, students, colleagues, lovers and countless other combinations of humanity.

A nostalgia based on memories of childhood, youth, love, friends, education, work and family.

For within those ugly structures lurked a world which shall not exist any more: some of which already has not existed any more for some years now.

A world comprising establishments such as the Milk Van and the Imqaret Kiosk. Both synonymous with their unique City Gate location. I have early childhood memories of drinking flavoured milk from a pyramidal carton purchased from that Milk Van. I also remember buying milk in glass bottles, fresh ricotta and yogurt from what was probably Malta’s only surviving stand-alone retail outlet exclusively selling dairy products.

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The same Milk Van also served as the area’s ubiquitous Meeting Point. Meeting a girlfriend on a first date, a group of friends for a hike or a day at the beach or a visit to Valletta to go to the cinema or shopping generally involved meeting “near the Milk Van” at a specific date and time.

The Imqaret Kiosk: a ramshackle structure from which the enticing smell of deep-fried dates encased in golden pastry attracted people in droves to buy the ridiculously affordable, if unhealthy, deliciously warm and tasty heartburn bombs. The Kiosk operator would lure people to buy his wares by adding a few drops of anisette to the bubbling oil in which the mqaret were frying, and the resultant aroma had a pull not dissimilar to that of magnetism. Such was the brand value of the humble Imqaret Kiosk that other kiosks have sprouted elsewhere on the Island bearing the reassuring statement, “Imqaret minn tal-Belt” which translates into “same provenance as those of the Valletta kiosk”.

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The Kiosks selling cheap pasti: fake kannoli filled with butter cream, atrociously coloured cakes containing a potentially lethal mix of food colourings and pies composed mostly of dough with the consistency of seasoned hardwood. And, from an age which predates one of the curses of our current age, plastic, the flavoured water dispensers from which orange or almond squash drinks could be purchased in real glasses which were returned to the kiosk for re-use. The same kiosks which remained open until the last bus left at 23:00 and which offered a telephone service for two cents a call when one missed the last bus and needed to do some explaining to one’s irate parents!

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There were other shops too of course. I distinctly remember a news kiosk selling not only newspapers but also stocking a variety of glossy magazines, books and classics such as Marvel and DC comics which we would stop and look at in awe, penniless as we were as students. Carts selling deliciously smelling fresh bread in the morning, lottery ticket sellers and a variety of itinerant, enterprising seasonal sellers selling you umbrellas on a rainy day, vetch seeds for the Christmas crib in November, carob sweets during Lent, sandals and hats in summer.  Apart from the then familiar but now rare sight of matronly ladies selling mulberries, capers, parsley, mint or bunches of stocks (gizi) from ancient prams.   The scene was completed by the cheap souvenirs kiosk aimed at the panicking departing tourist who left it till last or bus passengers seeking a beach towel, a baseball cap or cheap sunshades!

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Apart from all of these shops there were others less frequented. Shops which were attractive and provided sustenance to the bus and taxi drivers, bus conductors and ticket sellers. Burly men on metal chairs hunched on spindly formica tables drinking tea from a glass and eating a greasy pizza slice, a plate of imqarrun il-forn or a steaming qassata. A few rough looking ladies, bleach blonde and bedecked in garish jewellery made the picture complete. And in the narrow passageways behind the kiosks, another little world, not unlike Naples: unsavoury men betting money on card games or playing “morra”, a numbers guessing game which involved opening a number of fingers on one’s hands with the other side trying to guess a number from one to ten. Men who even the forces of law and order gave wide berth to.

The bulldozers shall be moving in soon. The structures will become but a distasteful memory from yesterday. Whatever will replace them will definitely be more visually attractive and appealing. But for nostalgics like me, the memory of what shall be no more shall always cause a small lump in my throat, a slight pressure in my chest whenever I pass from this well trodden patch of land.

Using Nature’s discarded Bounty: making home-made Carob Syrup.

Using Nature’s discarded Bounty: making home-made Carob Syrup.

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In most Maltese households one is sure to find the ubiquitous jar of “Gulepp tal-Harrub” or carob syrup, an elixir guaranteed to soothe the cruellest of coughs, whose popularity is passed on from generation to generation.  Like most things traditional, however, the home-made varieties so matter-of-factly produced by our ancestors have made way to commercially produced products so that while most people continue to purchase and use the syrup, they have lost the link with its natural source and with it the skill to produce their own at home.

Following last July’s blog entry in which I pondered on the wonders of carob trees and the pleasure of munching some fresh carob pods cut from an old tree, I decided to carry out some research on making Carob Syrup, and on discovering the relative ease with which it can be made, I decided to give it a try and produce enough to last me through the next twelve month cycle until the next carob pod harvest.

My entry today proposes to enthusiastically share my successful experience at making home-made gulepp tal-harrub in the hope that I might entice some readers to try it for themselves thus using a few more of the hundreds of thousands of carob pods which go to waste year after year.

The first step was to source a decent quantity of pods. I found an old, pod-laden tree in a field adjacent to the University and quickly filled a bagful from just a couple of branches. Each pod weighs around 20 grams so around 50 pods are necessary for a kilogram. The pods are already ripe so early in August and the tree had already shed hundreds on to the ground below. The one hundred-plus pods I collected did not even make a dent on the tree’s bountiful output and I felt good that at least a minuscule fraction of its free and generous produce was being put to use instead of wasting on the ground.

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Once home, I spread the pods on the table, removed loose twigs and leaves, and then took them in handfuls to the kitchen sink for a thorough rinse under running water. After patting them dry, I used kitchen scales to weigh a kilogram of pods and placed the pods onto a baking dish for roasting in the oven. I used a very high oven temperature (just a notch short of full) for around 50 minutes until the pods turned a bit crisp and brittle and started exuding the roasted-woody smell reminiscent of roasted chestnuts.

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After 50 minutes I took the pods out of the oven and let them cool. Meanwhile I filled a sizeable pot with two litres of water and proceeded to break each pod into little pieces by hand and throw it into the water. I covered the pot and let the pods soak for 24 hours to release their flavour and juices into the water. The water started to turn brown almost immediately. The liquid eventually formed the basis of the syrup which was produced on the following day.

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After 24 hours had passed, the mixture was placed on the cooker hob, brought to the boil and simmered gently for one hour to release more juice/flavour from the pods. By the end of the hour the liquid was very dark having absorbed the oils, sugars and flavours of the pods. The smell was divine. The pod fragments were then filtered off by sieving and the remaining liquid was put to the boil again after having 1 kilogram of sugar added. Once it reached boiling point it was left to simmer gently for 90 minutes, receiving a stir every now and then.

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The heating reduces the amount of water in the solution leading to a thickening of the liquid until it reaches a syrupy consistency. Once ready, it is recommended that the syrup is transferred hot to sterilised jars and sealed for eventual use.

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I have already received a number of ideas of variations to the above recipe which is time consuming but ultimately simple to make. Some have suggested using one litre of water with one kilogram of carob pods and using less sugar, preferably brown. The addition of bay leaves, cloves, anisette or brandy have also been suggested, while for better storage, one other suggestion is to pour a layer of scotch on the syrup before sealing the jar to lengthen its storage life.

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What are the benefits of Gulepp tal-harrub? You can either enjoy it as a refreshing year-round drink by diluting a couple of tablespoons of it in water, either cold or warm depending on the season. In terms of health, it serves as an effective expectorant, hence its popularity as an elixir for coughs. It is also a strong antioxidant, slowing down cell degeneration whilst also reputedly reducing levels of “bad” cholesterol. And it tastes good!

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