A golden, fennel-infused sunset at Ras il-Qammieh

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A golden, fennel-infused sunset at Ras il-Qammieh

It is mid-July on Malta.  Summer is almost four weeks old and the last signs of spring have long since vanished.  It has not rained for weeks and the next rainstorm is about six weeks away.  The air is hot and humid and the land is parched.  Only a few brave patches of resistant greenery emerge from the bone-dry, dusty, rocky landscape.

I stand at Ras il-Qammieh at the western tip of the Marfa Ridge on the flat topped plateau descriptively called id-Dahar, the Back.  Truly it resembles the back of some gargantuan rock monster lying face down in the blue Mediterranean from which it was born and from whose depths it now emerges.

I walk towards the westernmost point on mainland Malta to watch the sun set.  A place where the wild fennel grows profusely on the garigue, competing with Mediterranean thyme, wolfbane and lentisk.   There are no clouds on this clear July evening, but the air near the horizon is pregnant with suspended dust: fine dust from the Sahara sand storms of a few weeks ago, still airborne due to the absence of rain.  As the sun sinks lower into this dusty atmospheric layer, the sky, the sea and the landscape take on a surreal golden hue.  No need for fancy filters or artistic rendering: a mere point and shoot on my camera’s automatic setting and the scene is captured for ever.

The photo only captures the visual aspect however.  In reality, the experience is augmented by some rich olfactory flavours and other sensations  which can only be experienced in situ to be fully appreciated and enjoyed.  The cloying humidity,  the smell of the baked earth rising in waves from the ground, the fine dust clinging to one’s sandal-clad feet, the soft breeze coming from the sea.  And the intoxicating smell of wild fennel like some heady liquor combining to turn a simple sunset into something transcending the mystical.

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A rushed burial on Comino

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A rushed burial on Comino

I visited Gozo’s small but rich Museum of Archaeology recently.  A small building housing an impressive spectrum of remains and artefacts from Man’s earliest forays on the island up to early medieval times. A testament to how this small island has played host to multitudes of peoples and cultures for the past eight thousand years.

In a room reserved for Roman-era finds, one exhibit attracted my attention. The well-preserved, skeletal remains of a man accompanied by a vertically split amphora lay gingerly within the confines of a glass display cabinet. The man’s skull, his vertebral column, his shoulder blades and his ribs indicating a state of repose spanning long centuries. His well preserved skull still contains teeth and also sports a reasonably sized puncture in the cranium.

The remains were discovered on the island of Comino in 1912. Workmen carrying out trenching works on the eastern side of Santa Maria Bay discovered a shallow grave in the soil. The grave contained a man’s remains covered by two vertical halves of a split terracotta amphora. Amphorae were the classical age’s equivalent of packages and containers and were used to transport anything from wine to oil, honey or the famous, pungent Roman fish sauce known as garum. The burial has been dated to around 1,500 to 1,700 years ago between the 3rd and 5th centuries of the current era.

The archaeologists could say a lot from the style and nature of this unique burial from the evidence at hand. This was not a typical rock-cut tomb in an inland location as one is normally used to for the Roman period. It was a shallow grave in soft soil very near to the sea. The split amphora provided even further clues.

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In all probability this man was a sailor or passenger on a ship who died on board. His death must have happened in Maltese waters and the decision must have been taken to bury him at the first available opportunity for a landfall. This landfall was Comino’s Santa Maria Bay, a small sandy beach at the mouth of Comino’s two miniature valleys of Wied Imdied and Wied l-Ahmar.

The deceased’s body must have been unloaded off the vessel and transported to the beach where a shallow grave was rapidly dug out of the soil. In order to compensate for the shallowness of the grave and protect the remains from exposure, the burial was completed by covering the corpse with two halves of a vertically split amphora, from the stock of amphorae on board the vessel. And there it lay in peace until 1912 when it was brought to light once more and now lies in its new resting place in the museum in Victoria’s Citadel.

Who was this man? Where did he come from and where was he bound to? Was he a sailor or a passenger? What led to his early demise? Is the hole in his skull related to his death? What did he look like and how old was he?

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I hope that one day we will have answers to these questions. A mix of detective work assisted by analysis of DNA extracted from this man’s teeth and facial reconstruction from the well preserved skull could tell us so much more about this small incident which played its final drama on tiny Comino so many centuries ago.

 

The smell of the rain

The smell of the rain

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When you live in a country where rain is a regular occurrence, it becomes a fact of life, almost an annoyance. Particularly in areas where precipitation is a year round affair and where the prospect of uninterrupted spells of rainfall implies inconvenience, damp and blocked sunlight for long periods of time, the subject of rain becomes a topic of distaste; a phenomenon which necessitates the need to temporarily flee one’s normal abode in search of warmth and sunshine.

Not so in places where rain is not so common. Such as Malta during the long, hot, dry summer season. A place where week after week of warm to hot sunny days prevail almost uninterruptedly between late spring and late summer: around twelve weeks of hot, dry weather which burns the countryside dry and lets you wonder at the resilient patches of green vegetation which defy the furnace-like quality of what they face and survive almost without a drop of soothing water for sustenance, except for the occasional heavy dewfall which is absorbed through their leaves.

Those of us who inhabit such areas are generally sensitive to a particular sensation which is most magnified when it rains after a long dry period. I term this sensation, the smell of the rain. A wonderfully rich and refreshing earthy smell which brings great joy. An indicator of change to come. The first airborne drop of relief in advance of wetter days ahead.

I used to think that this sensation was something that was simply an undefinable feeling. Some primitive switch to which humans in dry places are programmed to respond. Until an architect friend of mine told me that there is actually a word for it! Petrichor. A combination of two distinct words, petra and ichor designed to embrace and encapsulate the feeling that has been arousing my senses since childhood.

Petra stands for stone while ichor stands for the more esoteric fluid that flowed in the veins of the Gods in Greek mythology! So there you have it: a heavenly fluid mixing with the very earth on which we lesser human mortals stand. Producing a sensation of what flows through the Gods’ own veins! No wonder the feeling of euphoric refreshment which the smell of the first rain brings.

Researchers theorise that the smell of the rain, or petrichor is caused by a combination of factors. Part of the smell derives from an oily substance exuded by certain plants during dry periods which is absorbed by clay and rocks on the ground. When it rains after a lengthy dry spell, the oil is released into the air along with another compound, geosmin, a metabolic by-product of certain bacteria which is emitted by wet soil, producing the distinctive scent. The smell can be further compounded by ozone which is generated by lightning during a thunderstorm.

The purpose of the oil is to slow down seed germination and plant growth during the lethal dry season. It is only when the rain dissipates the oil in the ground that the seeds get the go-ahead to germinate. This would indicate that the plants produce the oil in order to safeguard the seeds from germination under duress.

Just imagine what is taking place whenever you feel this exuberant high! As each raindrop lands on the porous surface of the sun-baked ground, air trapped in the pores forms small bubbles, which float to the surface and release spray-like aerosols.  Such aerosols carry the scent, as well as bacteria and viruses from the soil. Gentle rainfall tends to produce more aerosols which explains why petrichor is stronger and more noticeable after light rains.

As to why it excites us so much? Scientists believe that humans react so joyfully to the smell of the rain because our ancestors may have been hard-wired to rely on rainy weather for survival.

Blood of the Gods splashing on dry stones or complex organic chemicals released by plants and bacteria? Whatever the origin, the magic remains for all those who like me are sensitive to its timeless pleasure.

 

A clothes line amidst the fennel stalks.

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A clothes line amidst the fennel stalks.

A hot August morning on Comino. The rising sun’s heat is tempered by the occasional straggling cloud providing a few overcast seconds of relief and a stiff breeze of Majjistral, Malta’s prevailing north west wind which is nature’s alternative to refreshing air conditioning.

We are on our annual pilgrimage to this desolate little island. Arid, but full of life. Ruggedly beautiful with ever changing scenery. A two and a half square kilometre island. One tiny corner of which, its Blue Lagoon, is over-run by up to five thousand visitors daily. Leaving the rest to people like us. A fair deal, I think. Amazing how even on such a small landmass, you can just climb the small hill overlooking Cominotto Island and all evidence of the crowds dissipates into thin air. No sight, no sound. Nothing.

We have climbed from the inlet of San Niklaw and walked across Comino’s main thoroughfare, Triq Kemmunett. At the location of the old Bakery building we take a sharp right and climb steeply up Triq il-Gvernatur, the road leading to the imposing Santa Maria Tower, part of a network of coastal watchtowers built by the Knights of St. John.

Our final destination today is the small mooring place at Wied Ernu, a tiny cleft in the island’s southern coast which used to serve as the landing for boats from Malta during the time of the twentieth century agricultural colony on Comino.

The colony is long gone, but its remains, mostly in ruins and disrepair are spread all over the island.

On the way back, a small sign of human activity. One of the handful of people which stayed behind when the colony disbanded in the late 1960s. True Comino-born and bred. Hanging clothes to dry on a line. Surrounded by stalks of wild fennel.

A beautiful sight. A sign of humanity’s resilience and adaptability. And oneness with nature.

The fresh breeze, the aromatic smell of ripening fennel seeds and the slight waft of damp, clean laundry hanging out to dry in the wind. Elements which make me return to Comino year after year.

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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Of carob pods and carats

 

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Walking in the Mellieha countryside this weekend, in the traffic-free and solitary whereabouts of Ghajn Tuta, I came across an ancient carob tree laden with ripe pods. The carob, known to science as Ceratonia siliqua and as harrub to the Maltese is a hardy evergreen tree which graces the Maltese landscape and retains a canopy of green in the otherwise parched and dry summer Mediterranean landscape.

The carob is an evergreen flowering shrub, belonging to the pea family. It is native to the Mediterranean region especially in the eastern and southern area of this great Sea and is a very common species here in Malta where it grows without much care or cultivation and is legally protected, although countless ancient carobs unfortunately continue to be regularly uprooted to make way for development.

The carob’s fruit, its pod, has been consumed since ancient times by the peoples of the Mediterranean. The Bible makes numerous references to it such as in the parable of the Prodigal Son where the man who squandered all his riches and ended up working as a swineherd, longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything”.

On the basis of another biblical reference, it is also known as Saint John’s Bread or locust bean given that when Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist was fasting in the desert, “the same John had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey.” The locusts referred to in the biblical passage are not of the grasshopper variety but carob pods!

In Malta the ripe carob fruit is used to produce a syrup called “Gulepp tal-Harrub” which is used to treat chest colds and coughs and also forms the basis of the “karamelli tal-harrub” sweets which are popular for consumption during Lent when it is forbidden to consume sugary sweets. In times of scarcity, the carob pod was ground into a flour to produce bread. During the siege of Malta in World War 2, carob pods became highly prized for their nutritional value and fetched the highest-ever recorded market price of a penny a pod!

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I prefer to eat my carob pods straight from nature. Detached from the tree, rinsed under clean, running water and chewed one small mouthful at a time. Beware of the very hard seeds inside the pod which can easily break a tooth! Eat them in the countryside and spit the seeds onto the soil to help propagate new trees or savour them at home. An unrefined, woody sweet flavour which leaves a delectable aftertaste in one’s mouth!

But does one simply eat carobs for fun? There are many ascribed nutrition and health benefits which can be summarised as follows:

Carob tannins contain Gallic acid that works as an analgesic, anti-allergic, antibacterial, antioxidant, antiviral and antiseptic. It improves digestion and lowers cholesterol level in the blood and is used for treating bowel disorders in children and adults alike. Since it does not contain caffeine, carob is beneficial for people with high blood pressure.

The vitamin E content in carob helps in treating cough, flu and anaemia while the Gallic acid helps in preventing and treating polio in children. Carob fights against osteoporosis due to its richness in phosphorus and calcium. Carob pod husks are chewed by singers to clear the voice and throat.

And the seeds? Small and hard there is not much of a culinary use and unless you wish to plant them in a pot to grow little carob trees, just throw them away into the countryside where they may either take root or serve as food for the birds. But have one final look at them and hold one in your hands. For the humble carob seed you are holding was used by the ancients as a unit of measure for weighing gold and precious stones.  The carob’s scientific name Ceratonia siliqua originates from the Greek name for carob seeds: keration.  The word carat used in this sense is a corruption of this Greek word!

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Dining with the Dear Departed

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Dining with the Dear Departed.

In many cultures the concept of a wake takes place to bid farewell to the deceased. A wake is very often a social occasion which emphasises the fact that the loss pertains to a social group and therefore has an effect on the group as a whole.

Modern wakes are also associated with the serving of refreshments after the burial ceremony: something which contemporary Maltese society is not accustomed to except in feature films portraying northern cultures. However, evidence from the Maltese early-Christian catacombs clearly suggests that the custom of a final farewell meal with the person who has just been laid to rest was a common occurrence during the Roman period of Malta’s history.

While there is no documentary evidence to support this, the major Maltese catacombs from the Roman period commonly feature one important component which clearly points to this tradition.

This feature is commonly known as the Agape Table and is generally found in the wide public hall areas of the catacombs, generally at their entrance. The larger catacombs such as St Paul’s and St. Agatha’s in Rabat, Malta generally feature two of these tables while smaller catacombs with reduced burial capacity such as the small hypogea overlooking the old Roman harbour in Salina (where the pictures accompanying this story were taken) either feature a single Agape table or even none at all.

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This so called “table” is carved in its entirety from the living rock and its shape is assumed to have been jointly inspired by the triclinium (reclining couch) which was a common accessory in Roman dining rooms together with the stibadium which was the C-shaped banquet table from whose surface the diners reclining on the triclinium obtained their food.

These combined triclinium-stibadium combinations were hewn out of the limestone rock within the catacombs to form a solid architectural unit. Thus they are a solid part of the catacomb meant for permanent, multiple use.

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The Agape tables generally rise around 60cm above ground level. They were carved in such a way so as to slope gently downwards towards the circumference of the main chamber. On the surface, they assume the shape of a round, flat table encircled with a 6cm wide rim which is around about 3cm high, a sort of raised circumference giving the impression of a shallow flat bowl. The tables in the Maltese catacombs are about 75cm in diameter.  These Agape tables copy the C-shape of the Roman stibadium and all feature a small section of the rim which is opened on their front part. It is assumed that this opening had a functional rather than ceremonial function making it possible to clean and wash the table when the meal was over.

Of course, one assumes that at the time when the catacombs were in use, the people partaking in the meal were not expected to recline on the bare rock but that cushions and other soft material were laid on the sloping surface surrounding the table to provide for comfortable posture.

There are various interpretations for the use of these structures but the most popular explanation is that they were generally used by relatives and friends of the deceased to share a last meal to commemorate the person’s passing to the afterlife, possibly inspired by Christ’s last supper with his disciples.  They may also have been used to host commemorative meals during festivals of the dead such as All Souls Day during which visits to places of burial were very common and ceremonies to renew the rite of burials were held.

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So next time you visit the catacombs do look for these conspicuous structures, close your eyes and go back fifteen hundred years to imagine a silent gathering of mourners sharing a meal within the stark rocky embrace of these underground labyrinths.