Some Observations from Visiting Malta in April

April is the perfect time for visiting Malta. The temperature is perfect! Here are some observations made from a week long trip and also some travel guidance for visiting Malta.

Observations

  1. Malta is very clean and safe.
  2. There are lots of migrant workers in Malta. About 35% of the Maltese workforce are non-Maltese. We were picked up by a Filipino taxi driver and were served a number of times by Filipino wait staff.
  3. The Maltese language sounds sometimes like Italian and sometimes like Arabic. This makes a lot of sense when considering the proximity of the island to Italy and its history.
  4. There are so many churches and ostentatious buildings in Malta. This is due to the island’s historical ties with the Knights of St John. They are well kept in contrast to the older houses which are often peeling and decrepit looking.
  5. There is no train system on this small island. Public transport is by bus. Disappointingly, for a country that relies on tourism, the bus system is at capacity in April. There are disorderly queues to get on at popular locations and buses are often full within. Every seat is taken and every available spot filled with a standing person. The buses are not super frequent on many routes and bus drivers are known to leave people at stations if they cannot squeeze anymore on. I shudder to think what it would be like in August during peak season! As the buses are so busy, it is understandable that the bus drivers are often grumpy. For most tourists, bus drivers and wait staff are some of the main people they deal with. To improve the tourist experience, Malta should invest in more buses for their public system.
  6. Malta has a chilled Mediterranean vibe about it and in areas, is very pretty.
  7. There are a lot of churches and church-going people in Malta. We heard church bells during the day and fireworks for religious celebrations at night. We popped our head into a church on Sunday and it was full! An unusual sight! We were wondering about Rabat on a Sunday and came open an open square with a heap of people They must have just poured out of the local church. There was such a roar of conversation as this huge group of Maltese locals caught up with each other. It felt like community. As much as religion has its downsides, it does foster a sense of community and gives people a support network. It is however sad to see many of the older building peeling and cracked when church buildings with their gilded interiors are in good repair.
  8. In addition to tourism, Malta also brings in a lot of income from the online gambling and sports betting industries.
  9. The land on the island is not particularly fertile. It’s quite dry and rocky. Malta imports about 70% of its food.
  10. Considering how sunny and windy it is, and how the ground in Malta is not particularly arable, there were a surprisingly small number of solar and wind power installations.
Queues for a Maltese public bus
historic building

Travel Guidance

  1. English is one of the national languages of Malta. If you speak and read English, there will be zero language barrier issues travelling around Malta. Signs, menus, websites are all in English. Everyone we came across spoke English.
  2. We used the public bus system to get around Malta. We got a bus pass for €25 and that covered unlimited bus travel for 7 days. Despite being slower and sometimes annoying, I found it preferable to the stress that comes with hiring a car and navigating about a new country.
  3. Eating in Malta is cheaper than in London. It is also quite easy to eat quite cheaply. Cheap street food like the very filling, filled Ftira, Maltese bread, and pastizzis, a traditional savoury pastry, are widely available.
  4. A free walking, tips only, tour is a fantastic way to learn about Malta and is thoroughly recommended.
  5. Four to five full days is a good amount of time to visit Malta. An example itinerary would be, Day 1 – Medina/Rabat
    Day 2 – Valletta
    Day 3 – Three Cities (Senglea, Cospicua, and Birgu)
    Day 4 – Gozo island, Camino island
    Day 5 – St Julians, Sliema
  6. Approximate costs (from April 2024)
    – Return flight to/from London = £250
    – 6 nights in a self contained apartment £400
    – 7 day bus pass £21.5pp
Ftira, local bread with sandwich fillings and Cisk, the local beer.
Pastizzi – costs only about 0.60euro each
Distinctive doorknobs are everywhere in Malta!
Malta’s Parliament Building
These balconies are classic Maltese architecture.
A well in a historic residential home. Rainwater is stored for use in here.
The dry Maltese landscape
Rabbit stew is a classic Maltese dish

Eating Cheaply while Traveling Through Europe

Travelling through Europe is an expensive affair. The accommodation costs, the transportation costs, costs to see various sights and then on top of all that, you have to eat as well! Food offers a window to understanding a place and the people so whilst it is good to save money, it should be balanced with trying to experience the local cuisine. Here are some tips on how to eat cheaply in Europe.

Get off the main tourist strip – Rule number 1 to reduce the cost is to steer clear of the main tourist areas. If a shop or restaurant appears to be catering predominantly to tourists, there is a good chance the food will be subpar and pricey. Look for places where working class or local families might eat in districts where the local people live and work.

Look for marked down items in the supermarket – This hardly warranted a separate point except that we were in Carrefour in France and spotted some marked-down beignets with a chocolate filling. These were so divine and memorable, they had to get mention. These tasted amazing despite the fact they were marked-down in price. I assume they were not fresh. They tasted fresh to me which makes me wonder how heavenly, freshly made, warm beignets would be.

Germany is a great place for cheap food – Due to the number of Turkish migrants, the Turkish food in Germany is outstanding. It’s fresh, good quality and of a very high standard. We were in a touristy square in a German city and bought a falafel wrap from a street food van. This was expected to be average because buying food from a touristy location usually results in bad food. On the contrary, the dough was pulled and shaped right then and baked in a wood fired oven to make the wrap! The fillings were tasty and fresh. I had never seen wraps being made fresh before but it is not uncommon in Germany.

Lahmacun – There is argument as to whether this bread with spiced mince dish is Turkish or Armenian? This type of argument is common for lots of traditional foods as food does not respect the coutry’s border. Who cares? It’s delicious!

Breads dominates German cuisine. Their breads are usually dense, dark and filling. Sandwiches, baguettes and rolls made of these types of breads are found everywhere e.g. train stations and they make for a healthy and filling meal at low cost. Another favourite from the bakery is their freshly baked pretzels. They seem plain but are delicious, not too unhealthy and relatively cheap.

German Bread

Try to eat healthily – The strong temptation on holiday is to indulge all the time. If you are on a short holiday, that’s OK. If you are on a longer trip, it’s best to eat in a more balanced way whenever possible.

A restaurant is not your only option – Restaurants in Germany expect you to purchase a paid drink when you sit to eat. Restaurants in Italy will charge you a cover charge (coperto) and sometimes a tourist surcharge (maggiorazione) of up to 15%. Both will not give you free tap water. On top of this, there will be an expectation that you tip. With all these costs adding up, it’s important to remember that a restaurant is not the only option to get some food. Takeaway places e.g. kebab shops are much more reasonably priced and there are healthy and filling options. Similarly, you can go to a hole in the wall place or a street food stall / van. Markets often have food options and of course, you can always go to the supermarket. It’s often nice to pick up a few things and head to a park or local square to eat and watch the world go by.

Crepes being made in Antibes. These were delicious!
Riebekuchen, German fried potato pancakes from a hole in the wall place in Cologne. These were delicious. Served traditionally with apple sauce. Also with chilli, herb or garlic sauce. It’s hard to go wrong with fried potato!
Belgium Frites from a takeout friterie.
Fischbrötchen in Hamburg -unlike other German cities, Hamburg is closer to the ocean hence the local cuisine incorporates more seafood. A Fischbrötchen comes in all kinds of versions, this is a fried fish version. The more traditional version is with pickled herring. Purchased from a takeaway bakery type shop at the train station.

Use the local supermarket – If you have a choice, choose a larger supermarket vs a small one. It is likely to be cheaper. We ate many supermarket meals when travelling Europe. For less than price of 1 course for 2 people in a restaurant, we could easily buy 3 courses and some fruit in a supermarket for 2.

Perusing the local supermarket gives an insight to what the local population eat. For example, French people don’t eat instant noodles for there were none to be found. The cheese section in a French supermarket is humongous. In the German supermarkets there were a lot of mayonaise-heavy salads and spreads in toothpaste like containers. These were all for bread!

Eating from the supermarket is not necessarily substandard from eating at a restaurant. We found, especially in France, the quality at the supermarket was extremely high. The fresh produce was beautiful and flavoursome and even the microwave meals were truly delicious! Unfortunately, this could not be said for Germany. Strangely, the savoury food from the supermarket was all very salty. I suspect the expectation is that the food would be accompanied by bread which would balance out the salt.

A hot weather favourite of ours are yoghurt drinks. These are not common in Australia but widely available in Europe. They are tangy and refreshing on a hot day and more filling than just juice or water.

Gazpacho was a firm favourite in Spain. This great brand was in every supermarket in the refrigerated section. It’s a cold soup which is savoury and super refreshing on a hot day.
Gazpacho – with no artificial ingredients!
French Frozen Meal – this may have been a mere frozen meal from a supermarket but this was the most delicious risotto I have ever tasted!
German Supermarket Dinner
A quick supermarket dinner – cherry tomatoes, gazpacho in a carton, French baguette, cheese and 2 oranges (not pictured)
Plum Tart from a Local Market

Fill up if it’s free – Nothing is actually free but if your accommodation comes with breakfast included, make sure you eat lots!

Look for Lunch Time Menu Deals – These might be called Menu Del Dia or Menu Du Jour or Formule. These are usually multiple courses and can include a drink. These deals are only available at lunch time, so when travelling, make lunch your restaurant treat meal and do a supermarket dinner to save money.

If you see Plat Du Jour (plate of the day), this is often a good deal too.

Formule Meals in France – much better value
Moules Mariniere in Antibes,18 euros for mussels, dessert and a glass of wine.

Another memorable lunch menu meal was partaken in Bilbao. It was entree, mains, dessert and a whole bottle of wine per person for about 16 euros! It was also an interesting insight into Basque cuisine. The Basque are a separate ethnic group that live in parts of France and Spain. They speak their own language and have their own cuisine. I had Mimitako, a tuna peasant stew that they ate on fishing boats and red fish with garlic oil. I like the use of potatoes in the Mimitako. Real food for working class people always had carbohydrates because they are a cheap and filling way to stretch a meal.

Basque Tuna and Potato Stew (Mamitako) – a fish dish eaten on tuna fishing boats.
Red Fish with Garlic Oil – this dish speaks to me of priorities. Here at this restaurant, the fish is cooked splayed open and drizzled with a salt, oil and browned garlic. It doesn’t look attractive on the plate. The fish is bony and hard to eat in polite company. This is not what matters. The meat on this fish was sweet, tender and beautifully cooked. The simple garlic oil elevated this dish without overwhelming the mild fish. This was foremost about taste and not looks. I like a restaurant brave enough to do that!

Restaurant Selection Impacts the Price – If you go to a fancy steak or seafood place, your price per head will be inevitably high. Choose a more modest place, for example a place specializing in French galettes, a cute brunch cafe or humble “mom and pop” eatery for a more reasonable price. Asian and Ethnic food places can also work out cheaper.

French Buckwheat Galettes – seafood/cream/leeks/cheese and chicken/camembert/cream

The UK Supermarket Meal Deal – British people eat a lot of sandwiches. Almost every supermarket chain has some version of the meal deal where you get a sandwich/baguette/wrap, a snack and a drink for between 4 to 6 pounds. It’s very good value. There is an astounding variety of sandwiches, most of which cannot be found on the supermarket shelves in any other country. Some examples include coronation chicken, egg and cress, cheese and pickle and ploughmans. For a snack you can even get a Scotch Egg which is a hard boiled egg, coated in sausage meat and a crispy bread crumb. A Scotch Egg is very British!

UK Meal Deal – coconut water, scotch egg and a coronation chicken sandwich. A scotch egg is a UK delicacy of a hard boiled egg wrapped with sausage meat and breadcrumbs. Coronation chicken is a classic UK sandwich filling where chicken is mixed with curry flavour mayonaise, raisin and apricots. (It’s tasty enough but a little weird!)

Get a Restaurant Discount – When in Europe, you can use websites like TheFork to book restaurants at a discount. With discounts up to 50% off, this works out to be very good value! In London, you can even eat at a reduced price at brand new restaurants when they are doing their soft launch. This is a testing phase where the new restaurants are ironing out their issues. You can find these new restaurants offering discounts on the Soft Launch website.

In Toulouse, the local specialty is cassoulet, a peasant sausage and bean dish. We managed to found a restaurant specializing in cassoulet with a 50% discount on TheFork. What a great deal! We also had a delicious duck breast dish with an extraordinary pepper sauce at the same restaurant.

Cassoulet – a traditional peasant dish from Southern France consisting of slow cooked beans, sausage, pork and fat. A must-eat in Toulouse. This dish makes a lot of sense. It makes hearty warming fare after a cold winter’s day of working in the field. The meat and sausage flavours the dish which is stretched to feed many with the addition of beans which are cheap but add a creamy starchiness.
Duck Breast, Frites and Pepper Sauce – French cuisine is often lauded as the best in the world. I’m not sure I agree except when it comes to sauces. French sauces are just a triumph. They are so tasty that not a single molecule can be allowed to go to waste!

Not all supermarkets are the same – Supermarkets are aimed at various parts of the demographic and can therefore be at different price points. If you shop at Waitrose or M&S in the UK vs Lidl, Aldi or Iceland, you will have a much high bill. Our favorite and consistently the cheapest is Aldi. It’s nice that it’s always good value but another selling point is that it has only one product of any type of thing in the store. For example, if you want a can of chick peas, there will only be one brand to choose from. Multiply this for all the different types of products in the store and you have an experience where you can do your shopping with a lot less decision fatigue. You spend less time comparing prices on the same item across different brands.

Aldi was actually started by two brothers. They did very well together up to the point they had 300 stores. Then they had an argument about whether cigarettes should be sold in the store. They could not reach an agreement so they split Germany down the centre into Aldi Nord and Aldi Sud and operated their own stores each. As they expanded internationally, the world was also split into Aldi Nord (north) and Aldi Sud (south). Instead of letting an argument break down the family business, these brothers just split up the world and got on with it.

In Slovenia and in Austria, Aldi took over a popular chain of supermarkets called Hofer. Due to strong brand recognition, it was decided to leave the name as Hofer.

Whilst it is important to watch the pennies when travelling, be careful that it doesn’t take away from the joy of having new experiences and trying new cuisines. Enjoy your travels and eat good food!! Good food is a joy!

German Sausage and Potato Salad

If you are the type of person who finds eating too time consuming and you consider food only to be fuel for your body, consider these liquid food substitutes. These are definitely not for me because if food has to be labeled “This is Food”, I’m not really sure it is.

Food replacement

Nom Nom New York!

Food in the US is a punch in the face with flavour. It’s not mild or bland, it’s almost like turning up the volume on the taste. I find when I’m in the US that savoury foods are often too salty and sweet foods are too sweet. It’s all delicious though. It’s not healthy but it’s so damn good. It’s all that sugar, salt and fat! It makes our brains light up like Times Square!

Fine dining and Michelin star restaurants absolutely do not have the monopoly on tasty food. Often I think that food cooked with love, hospitality, generosity and plenty is the best. There are lots of cheap and cheerful places all over Manhattan with excellent food. We stayed in East Village and were thrilled to find a large number of excellent places to eat. We also did a couple of food/walking “tips only” tours which were great fun and delicious as well. Here are some of our eating experiences in New York. Nom Nom Nom!!

How can you go to New York and not have a “dirty water” dog! These are the famous New York Hot Dogs. They are called “dirty water” dogs because the sausage is cooked and left in a vat of warmish water and pulled out when a customer requests a hot dog. We were advised that locals would ask for a “dog” and not a “hot dog”. If you ask for a “hot dog”, you reveal yourself to being a tourist and then become exposed to price gouging. We found that most food cart vendors in Manhattan do not advertise their prices openly. This is against the law but they do this to price gouge unsuspecting tourists. Beware! Do not support these unscrupulous vendors. We made a conscious decision only to support food establishments which openly display their pricing.

Enough about pricing, let’s discuss the hot dog. Well, it was very small and underwhelming. The bun is made of fluffy soft white bread which has no substance. The entire hot dog is consumed in three bites and in 15 minutes you’re hungry again.

NY Hot Dog

New York Hot Dog

Instead of spending a few dollars on an average hot dog, get a taco instead with the money. We found Otto’s Tacos in the East Village to be so scrumptious that we went twice during our stay in New York. They prepare each taco as you order them with home-made corn tortillas (really authentic rustic flavour). The chosen proteins are accompanied only with some coriander and sauce. The simplicity allows the taste of the filling and the texture of the taco to really shine. It makes for a religious eating experience!

Ottos Tacos

Tacos from Otto’s Tacos

Also in East Village is an outlet of Xi’an Famous Foods. This shop boasts Anthony Bourdain as one of its biggest fans. They specialities include Spicy Cumin Lamb Burger and the hand ripped spicy noodles. Even though Xi’an is in China, this tastes unlike most Chinese food. Due to the heavy use of cumin, it tastes almost Middle Eastern to me. Xi’an is situated at the start of the Silk Road and it explains the fusion of flavours and Middle Eastern spices. The hand ripped noodles are a surprise with its addictively chewy texture and a spiciness that builds in your mouth as you work through the dish. The lamb burger was delicious. It reminded me of a kebab with the bread and the cumin spiced filling.  Everything is served in typical American style for this sort of cheap eatery on disposable plates which of course you throw away once you’re finished.

XianFineFoods2

Spicy Cumin Lamb Burger from Xi’an Famous Foods

XianFineFoods1

Spicy Hand Ripped Noodles from Xi’an Famous Foods

In America, one cannot visit without having a hamburger. The consumption of a hamburger is totally normalised in the US. It’s not so much an occasional treat but an everyday food. We chose to get hamburgers from Steak ‘n Shake based on a recommendation from a Californian friend. These burgers were indeed delicious but for health reasons, we limited ourselves to only one meal of hamburgers during our visit. Greasy, cheesy burgers are not everyday food!  The best burgers I’ve had in the US are from Red Robin, a burger chain on the west coast of the US. Those burgers are utterly divine but also a heart attack waiting to happen!  Anyway, what do you expect from the nation that brought us the Hashbrown Double and deep fried cheescake?

Steak n Shake

Steak ‘n Shake Burgers

One of the most fun ways I’ve found for discovering new places and food is to do “tips only” food walking tours. Whilst in New York, I did a food tour of Greenwich Village and of Flatbush Brooklyn. Both were excellent.

In Greenwich Village, we stopped for falafel at Mamoun’s falafel. These were nice but not the best falafel I’ve ever had. This was followed by two pizza stops. First was Artichoke Pizza followed by Bleecker Street Pizza. It does seem crazy to do two pizza stops in one tour but this is New York City, home of some of the best pizza in the world AND, these two pizza were so very different yet both distinctive and delicious. The speciality at Artichoke Pizza is of course Artichoke Pizza. It’s a bit like creamy artichoke dip on top of a pizza. The crust was more robust to support the topping. It was creamy, tasty and rich. I don’t think you can eat a lot of it. By contrast, the Bleecker Street Pizza had a thin crust and had “Nonna Maria’s” special tomato sauce on it. Much lighter, but still very tasty and the crust was just beautifully cooked and a little crispy.

Artichoke Pizza

Sign at Artichoke Pizza

BleeckerStPizza

Pizza from Bleecker Street Pizza

Onwards to arancini balls at Faicco’s. This store sells lots of different Italian Specialities but on the day, we tried the arancini balls. These are risotto balls coated in breadcrumbs and fried. When I bit into the arancini ball, I was surprised to find a very plain and simple risotto inside and yet the ball contained so much flavour. It was surprisingly good. Often, arancini balls are made with fancy flavoured risottos e.g. sun dried tomato or mushroom but even without the frills, these arancini balls were still so flavourful. Is it the use of parmesan for umami?

Arancini

Arancini Balls from Faiccos

At this point of the Greenwich village tour, I’m getting quite full. We are now onto the sweet stops. First is a place called, Bantam Bagels which sell mini stuffed bagel balls. I tried one called “The Jack” which is a cinnamon and nutmeg spiced bagel filled with a pumpkin spiced cream cheese. This was a special flavour due to Halloween coming up. The cream cheese in the centre was yummy! In general, I don’t care for the texture of bagels. I think they are an underwhelming and dense bread and I can’t understand why they are so popular in New York. Give me a chewy sour dough any day!

BagelBite

The Jack from Bantam Bagels

Last dessert stop. I’m now rolling and waddling along the streets of Greenwich Village when we head into Molly’s Cupcakes for a seat and a cupcake. Due to my extreme state of fullness, I chose a Mini Molly Filled Cupcake. It was chocolate with chocolate icing and a chocolate mousse filling. How many times did I say chocolate in one sentence? Can you understand why I did not remember to take a photo. My mind was clouded in a chocolate fog! I had to laugh when I bit into this indulgent cupcake. It was intentionally tiny but between the icing on top and the filling in the centre, I was amazed at how little cake there was and how that tiny bit of cake could support all the icing and the filling.

Upon completion of that tour, all I wanted to do was to go back for a lie down while all that food digested.

A few days later, we’d arranged to go on a food walking tour in Flatbush Brooklyn. I had never explored Brooklyn before and this was a great opportunity. First stop was De Hot Pot serving classic Caribbean food and roti. Roti is an unleavened flat bread from India. What is awesome is how this Indian originated food travelled with the Indian diaspora to become an integral part of the food culture of the Trinidad and Tobago and of South East Asia (e.g. Malaysia).

In this shop, we tried a Trinidad street food snack called doubles. This is a sandwich of two pieces of fried bread with chick pea curry in the middle and a dash of spicy sauce. The fried bread is similar to poori, a deep-fried Indian bread.  What a delicious savoury snack! We saw the shop prepare roti for other patrons as well. Their rotis were huge, maybe 50 cm in diameter and goat curry was spooned into the centre along with other fillings and condiments and the entire thing wrapped up like a burrito wrap on steroids! If you ate that, you would not need to eat for 3 days afterwards!

Doubles

Doubles from De Hot Pot

After a pie stop, at the Pels Pie Company for some sweet treats, we meandered along the leafy green streets and stately homes of Brooklyn before sharing a spicy cocktail at a neighbourhood cocktail bar. This was followed by Jamaican vegetarian food at Scoops & Plates Eatery.

We had a dish of soy based mock chicken and a vegetable stew called Callaloo on a bed of emperor’s rice. Callaloo is a Caribbean dish which varies depending on the region. This particular version was thickened using okra and contained dasheen bush. Dasheen bush is a leafy vegetable. The dishes were served with emperor’s rice or forbidden rice, black rice, so named because it was once reserved for only the emperor and royal family in ancient China.

Callaloo

Jamaican Vegetarian Food from Scoops in Brooklyn

At the next stop, we tried Jamaican Escovitch fish, which is deep-fried fish marinated in a spicy vinegar and served with pickled vegetables. This was really interesting because pickling the fish helps preserve it for a few days which makes a lot of sense back when refrigerators were not so widespread. Turns out, there are pickled fish dishes in many cultures. A quick Google search showed South African, Indian and Malaysian pickled fish recipes. Isn’t it amazing how the same basic need to preserve food safely has led to a similar approach in vastly different cultures?

Escovitch

Escovitch Fish

Our last stop on the tour of Flatbush Brooklyn is Jerk Chicken at Peppa’s Jerk Chicken. This place is unassuming but produces tasty and surprisingly tender jerk chicken. I can’t wait to try my own version of jerk chicken at home. I think an overnight marinade with jerk spices and a slow roast will give a wondrous result.

Jerk Chicken

Jerk Chicken

I learnt a lot during the Flatbush Brooklyn food walking tour. I had never tried food from Jamaica or Trinidad before. These are entire regions of food which are totally new to me. It always excites me to taste new food and learn new things about the origins of dishes.

I am now starving after writing this post and will now head off to start cooking my dinner!

Happy Exploring and Happy Eating!