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.


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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Sunrise over the lake


Sunrise over the lake

A lake in bone dry Malta?  The only European country with no permanent surface water?

Yes.  In the place appropriately called l-Ghadira, the Lake.

What and where is this lake?  A patch of low land lying in the small valley between Mellieha Ridge and Marfa Ridge in the hinterland of the big sandy beach of Mellieha Bay.  Land which actually lies below sea level, allowing brackish water to seep through the rock and mix with fresh water percolating from the rocky layers of the surrounding ridges.  A true saline marshland, the Maltese bur salmastru.

The lake has been there since antiquity: a salt lake which dried up during the summer leaving salt deposits only to refill again with the winter rains.  A smaller version of the salt lakes of Limassol and Larnaka in Cyprus.   In centuries gone by, the salt was harvested by man.  Old maps indicate the area as saline vecchie: Italian for “old salt pans”.  The salt production in the area dates at least to Arab times given that the name of the village within whose confines the lake stands is Mellieha: which derives from the Arabic melh for salt.  Mellieha actually translates as the “salt producing place”.

Over the years the place silted up and the lake disappeared.  As a child I remember the lake bed being used as a car park by people going to the beach: a huge expanse of sand which looked like the endless Sahara to my untrained eyes!  Then the Malta Ornithological Society (now Birdlife Malta) took up the challenge to restore the Lake to its natural state.  With a little mechanical help and the healing powers of nature, it morphed into the natural oasis it has become today.  A birdwatcher’s paradise.  A rare wetland environment which we could only dream of a few decades back.

I took this photo a few years ago on an early February morning from 150 metres above in Qammieh.  The sun rising over the heights of Selmun, the calm waters of Mellieha Bay, and the lake with its plethora of tiny islets shimmering like a pot of molten gold. A truly magical moment over our only lake, the Ghadira at Mellieha Bay.

A Bay called Slugs

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A Bay called Slugs

Cuba has its Bay of Pigs, Namibia has its Whale (Walvis) Bay while Malta has its Slugs Bay.

Nothing huge, quite minute in fact, to the point of being almost negligible.  Not a real beach but a microscopic inlet nestling under the cliffs of the Marfa Ridge.  An accident of nature caused by the accumulation of fine sand in the shallow space between a group of huge boulders which collapsed from the adjacent cliff.

Maltese cliffs are made of relatively soft limestone layers which slowly erode as they interact with the blue Mediterranean.  This results in a fragmented coastline comprising numerous collapsed boulders known as boulder scree.  Generally, such collapsed rock is more of a nuisance to people wanting to access the sea, but occasionally the boulders actually serve to create small beaches.  Slugs Bay is one such rare creation.

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It lies very near to the northernmost tip of Malta on the south-facing part of the Ahrax peninsula, one of the arms embracing the one kilometer wide Mellieha Bay which is Malta’s largest sandy beach.   Just off the main road on the Ahrax Peninsula one walks under the shade of a small group of pine trees until the cliff’s edge is reached.  A winding, sometimes steep and uneven path leads to the postage-stamp sized beach, although the views are great and ever-changing each step of the way.

Once there, you can experience one of the quietest and most secluded parts of Malta, especially outside the summer months.  The shallow sea, the fine light-coloured sand, the crystal clear water.  Almost a water’s edge, private pool in an authentic natural setting.  And in August, the place is full of the rare, beautiful and protected sea daffodil which seems to emerge miraculously from the parched sand.

Its Maltese name is the equally poetic Dahlet ix-Xilep which translates into The Inlet of the XilepXilep is the plural of xilpa which is a common coastal fish known in English as soape with the scientific name Sarpa salpa.  

And the slugs?  Not the terrestrial variety but harmless sea cucumbers which appear occasionally.  I have to confess I never saw them in my forays there, although an appearance would definitely give character to some new photographs of this tiny spot to which they gave their name!

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