A Staple Commodity

Babelmed | Adrian Grima, Karsten Xuereb | 07/10/2003

How the story of bread in Malta reveals more about Malta itself.

Writing about nutrition in Malta in Medieval and early modern times (Rivista di Antropologia, Roma, Vol. 76, 1998), Maltese cultural historian Carmel Cassar argues that the diet of the Maltese “remained pretty much the same over the centuries, particularly for the lower classes.” The people “ate little meat, cheap fish, and poor-quality cheese. Bread was the staple commodity and remained so at least until the early 20th century;” after all, “the Mediterranean world was a world of hunger”.
In Malta, it seems that bread with cheese was the most popular meal in the early seventeenth century. According to Cassar, in 1617, Margarita Bertone taught Maria Gagliarda how to throw three pieces of bread and cheese out of the window and say: “Così come la gente non possono stare sensa magnare pane et frumaggio così l’amico non possa stare sensa venire dalla tale che l’ama.” [As people cannot live without eating bread and cheese, likewise the loved one cannot live without returning to his beloved].

Carmel Cassar was recently invited to speak at the second edition of the Mediterranean Food Festival organized by the Malta Tourism Authority in mid-March. He concluded his talk about “The Culture of Food in the Mediterranean” by maintaining that the “on-going rediscovery and re-evaluation” of traditional Mediterranean products “invite us to reflect upon the role played by food in the creation of food images of the past as well as upon our need to experiment with food largely to serve our economic interests particularly directed towards the tourist industry. Indeed the rediscovery of traditional products has become an important element of the ethnocentric paradigm of Mediterranean societies. However Mediterranean societies must be conscious of the need to preserve the originality of traditional products rather than allowing them to be transformed simply to please the tourist industry. When such transformations are tolerated the end product can simply be described as the creation of someone’s imagination rather than the real thing.” Carmel Cassar argues that by “creating new ‘traditional’ products of a mythical origin” Mediterranean communities will be “making a great disservice not only to high quality tourism but worse still a disservice to their own reputation.” Rather than invent or reinvent “a bogus cuisine”, Mediterranean societies should research their own specific culinary histories within their own cultural framework, and re-evaluate what they find.”
The success of the first Bread Festival held in the village of Hal Qormi prompted many people to renew their interest in bread. I thought of interviewing a young man called Melvin who is the son of the owner of a successful confectionery and bakery in that “bread town” par excellence. The interview was eventually done by Karsten Xuereb who asked Melvin the questions we had discussed beforehand and others that cropped up during their conversation. Karsten also translated it into English from the original in Maltese.

Would you take part in the Bread Festival, a festival that was held here in Hal Qormi in 2002?
Yes, the Festival was a good idea and provided both the participants and the audience with a positive and enriching experience. And, after all, Maltese bread is exactly that, Maltese, and we can’t say we have too many of things that are “ours”. As a colony, Malta has always been influenced by foreigners, but the hobza tal-Malti is Maltese.

Melvin, your family has always been involved in making bread. When did it all start?
Since I was a child I can always remember my father and mother making bread. They’ve been in this business for about twenty years. My grandfather had set it up, and my father followed in his footsteps. Even as a child I’d be here at the bakery, playing around with the bread.

How old are you?
Twenty-one. And even I have always been at this work. I’ve sort of grown up in the bakery! As we say, the master’s son knows half the trade. It happens naturally. My uncle, who is as old as myself, and I, grew up here, and have always worked in the bakery. You hang around, you lend a hand, and you’re drawn in automatically.

So you didn’t pick this work consciously, actually choosing it among other careers or jobs?
That’s right, the choice is automatic. Nowadays there are lots of careers to choose from, but I’d have chosen this one just the same. I was born and bred into this work, and can probably carry on blindfold… the work becomes second nature.

So you never considered choosing another field while studying at school?
I had spent one year in Northampton, England, getting on-job training in the field of catering. During that year I got an over-all view of catering. One eventually ends up specializing, because that’s the best way to proceed. But you do need to have a general know-how of the trade, say in tourism, the kitchen…the field is rather wide, you know…

What are your views about specializing in bread-making, even in such a small market as Malta? Does specialization help to make one particular bakery stand out?
It is common knowledge that today one needs to specialize more than ever, since competition is getting harsher. To be professional one needs to be reliable, and this is what we want from our customers, make them feel they can rely on us. All around the world, in Malta, England or America, professional people always succeeded.

Is there any particular product that acts as your flagship?
Not really, thank God, our customers seem to like all of our products. As long as you make the right effort… for example, you can make a cake, quite a common thing to do, and decide to use 100 grams less than the required half kilo. It’s true, you have saved twenty cents, but your clients will say this is not good enough, and not return to your bakery. What’s worth doing is worth doing well… and this also makes you proud of what you’re doing. I remember that as a child, at school, we’d have projects to do, and we gave it all we had… this makes you very proud of yourself.

Your occupation seems to be much more than just your work…
Well, yes, it’s not a hobby, but quite close to that. For instance, I love decorating a cake, seeing it take form and making it attractive. I can then sell it with great confidence, since I know I’ve got something good to sell.

You know what you’re selling…
That’s right. It means working more or spending a bit more, but you know you won’t get any complaints.

How important is it to you to maintain your good reputation?
It’s of great importance, since if you buy something once and you like it, you’ll buy it a second time. If you eat out at a restaurant, and you don’t like the food or the service, you won’t go a second time. Reputation grows on its own, and takes time. The important thing is to do whatever small thing you do well.

Your grandfather started the whole business thirty-five years ago.
My grandfather worked for the British Royal Force in Malta, as a cook, and gained a general knowledge of many things in the field of catering. He’s seventy today, and started working in the kitchen when he was twenty. He passes that love and skill to us, and today we specialize in yeast products, like bread and doughnuts. He used to do various things, from sweets to a seven-course meal.

In fact this bakery was once a restaurant and snack bar, right?
My grandfather had started off making crisps, and in fact here in Hal Qormi he is known as Tal-Crips. He then opened up a restaurant, and since then he’s always been involved in this work. My father and his brothers grew up in this work. My uncle went to England to work a Head Chef in a restaurant and my father set up this bakery. They all specialized in their field, but catering’s in the family.

Before we talked about your products. When you decide to launch a new product on the market, maybe in view of a feast or a special occasion, or simply to increase your range, how do you make your choice?
Well, to keep the people interested, you need to experiment and develop something new. For instance, lately we came up with garlic, onion and olive bread, and our customers seem to like it very much. Especially in summer, when they’re used on the grill at barbecues. We make it by putting garlic, or onions or olives into the dough mix… depending on the request. These are innovations in the Maltese market. We know they exist, but we’re not very much used to them. So we decided to introduce these new ideas. To launch something you need to get all the help you can get…radio, newspapers, internet. Getting a product known by word of mouth is not enough. Nowadays, the media make the job easier.

Who are your clients?
There are the tourists, whom we serve via the hotels they’re staying at, and there’s Peppi… the man in the street, from Hal Qormi itself. They come to our shop or we go round the village with our van, or supply various shops outside Hal Qormi. We do door-to-door, but we act more as wholesalers.

Do you go round with van, door-to-door, yourself?
Yes, currently we’re making the rounds in Pembroke.

What is it like when you go round, seeing the same people open their front doors to come and buy your bread, day in day out?
Well, this is part of a tradition. You go back in time. It’s a tradition that is still living with us. It’s convenient for Maltese people, to have the baker come to your home with his bread, warm and fresh…the Maltese people still love that. It’s like having the green grocer come to your home in his van.

What are the comments of your clients? Do they tell you what they like, or what they don’t like?
You know whether a product is good or not, since you see the same people come back, time and time again, one day after the other, and you know they’re satisfied with the product. But yes, they do tell you what they like, and let you know how to improve your product. All comments are constructive, and you can always improve your product since people tell you what they want. If you supply a shop with your bread, it’s different. It’s easier, but you don’t know what’s happening much. You won’t get to know the complaints.
And when you sell your bread door-to-door, or directly from the bakery, your satisfaction is greater…
Definitely. And obviously, it’s better also financially. It’s more hard work, but as I said, today’s world is so fast, you’ve got to specialize in your own field and make the best of it. There aren’t many jacks of all trades left…

Does being a jack of all trades frighten you?
Yes, that’s why it’s better to be at least a master of one. It’s good to be an all-rounder, since you’ll always have something up the sleeve. But, as they say, you can’t chew more than you can bite.

Is there anything you’d like to change in the way you make the bread, sell it or project your image?
There is always space for improvement. Today, safety and health are two very important issues, and such improvements cost a lot of money. The costs we face to upgrade our work-place are high today, and will get higher in the near future, but it’s the road to take. In our company, for instance, you do not see any more bakers not wearing a T-shirt or without gloves…

How have the new regulations imposed by Malta’s application to join the EU affected you?
Safety and health are priorities. A worker has to be safe at work. He can’t risk his life. Here we’ve got lots of machinery that can be dangerous if not handled and operated carefully, such as cutting appliances and dough mixers. You also need the required equipment, like safety shoes and gloves and caps. No one likes to find cigarette ashes in his bread…

But how have the changes in regulations affected you? Did you obey the present laws even before Malta applied to join the EU?
Yes, it has had a positive effect. As everyone knows, such work-places as ours in Malta were rather out of touch with the latest technology and safety measures. For instance, we now have all the required fire extinguishers. There have been great changes in the last two to three years. All those who have the opportunity to work abroad or undergo on-job training with companies overseas become instantly aware of the differences. You feel they are more professional. That’s the first step to having a good product. You’ve got to have the basics right. Yes, it’s going to cost you money, but at least you’ve got a strong foundation. You shouldn’t build on sand, but on concrete.

So, you can say it’s a form of investment.
At the end of the day, that’s it.

You said you’ve studied catering abroad, and your uncle worked in England. What about the other employees who work here: have they ever had any work experience abroad, or in Malta?
In Malta, this does not take place as yet. But I’m optimistic that this on-job training will happen in the near future, including written tests, on health, hygiene and safety. We’ll see the end of having workers who are skilled but not academically able. Unfortunately, when young most Maltese have to choose whether to follow an academic or a skills-oriented career, with nothing in between. But I’m hopeful things will improve.

How would the people working here react to such a change?
Well, middle aged workers will probably have some difficulties in adapting and might offer some resistance. On the other hand, younger workers will find it less difficult. With older workers, yes, it would be harder. You don’t just introduce a system and expect everyone to fit in.

Do young people get involved in this work?
Yes, sure. Young people who pick this job need training, but often they do have some experience in catering, and know what it’s about… well, it’s always this way, you’ll find one in a million, like any work, one for this job and the other for that other job, but then whoever you find will be cut for the job.

Is it true that people who go into catering and working in bakeries already have some family links with the field?
Generally, yes. As in any discipline, you’ve got to have some influence. Even when you’re young, you might be impressed by a speech, by something which stands out and you might decide to follow it.

With regards to your work here in Malta, do you have to face some situations which cause problems or make your job more difficult?
Yes, sometimes you do want to come up with some new ideas or operations, but ultimately you have to face the market. Something, for instance, can be a good idea, but ends up being too expensive. Or it might not be appreciated. Yes, bread is bread, quite a common commodity, but it’s not an easy job to do. You’ve got to be aware of all that goes into the process: two men to make it, half an hour in the oven, the time it takes to improve, which is the time the CO2 takes to work on the yeast…it’s also a matter of weather. The Maltese bread, or hobza, is affected by the weather, and takes between 35 and 45 minutes to be ready. Sixteen cents, which is how much it costs, does not reflect the whole process…I’m not asking for the price to rise, but I just want to tell you that it takes an insider’s look to know what goes on. You can also speak of the wheat, the way it grows, how it becomes flour, the packing, so on and so forth.

How is a typical day of yours?
Well, there is a certain routine to the day, and as with any other work, you’re tied to it. My day starts at 3pm, and I can keep working till one in the morning, or sometimes seven in the morning. I won’t be working all the time, but I’ve got to be here, and awake. In the morning I supply the shops with bread and carry out the stock-taking. Today’s it’s not any more a matter of flour, salt and water. Today you’ve got milk, proofers and different types of flour like multi-grain, semolina and brown flour. And I’m always on the go. However, I’m generally free on Sunday. Usually, I eat out, or have a drink somewhere. I also love to go to some quiet place, to make up for the noise in the bakery!

Do you eat bread yourself?
Yes, I do! I can’t eat anything without bread! Except for pasta. I grew up with bread. This is the case especially somewhere like Hal Qormi, where even if you don’t own a bakery or an oven, all the village is well-known for its fresh bread!

Adrian Grima and Karsten Xuereb

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s