03 April 2012

What The Heck Is Ftira?

Ftira seems like a simple concept, but it's not. And it might not even really be ftira.
Malta isn't a big place, and Gozo (the "other island" in the archipelago) really isn't a big place. But it's big enough to have culinary specialties, and ftira - or is it ftajjar? - is principle among them.
We journeyed all over this speck of rock, getting confused, finding clarity, getting disappointed and, finally, finding the best ftira on earth (probably). So, what is this thing? It took us a while to figure that out.
Ftira, we knew, was a Gozitan specialty that was something like pizza, but also different from pizza. But I'll get to that in a minute.
Trying to be good about tasting local specialties, we stopped - on our first noon in Gozo - at the Clock House restaurant in Victoria, in front of which was a blackboard advertising Ftira. There was a list of different options, and the waitress was very flattering when I ordered. "Ah," she said. "You've ordered the one that we order. That's the traditional Gozo choice."
Well, this is what I ended up with. A tuna sandwich. It turns out, Ftira is a little more complicated than I'd thought. The clockhouse wasn't being misleading.
This is the second ftira I ordered, in the seaside town of Xlendi, and probably the worst. The sandwich, at least, was flavorful.
So, here's the thing. Ftira is a specific type of Maltese bread - not Gozitan bread, but Maltese bread in general. So, sometimes, a sandwich made on Maltese ftira bread can be called a ftira. That's a country wide thing. But Gozo has a special kind of this bread, which is similar to a pizza. But a pizza with Gozitan ftira toppings - anchovies, olives, onions, capers and slices of potato - isn't really a ftira either. This was basically just a pizza, masquerading as something else. It was dry and uninteresting, with no sauce or cheese. I was beginning to think that eating ftira was a worthless experience.Here's one problem - what I was looking for is actually called ftajjar, but is listed on menus and referred to as ftira (or, even, pizza). Here's the first good one I had a slice of, at a place called (inauspiciously) Victoria Hotspurs Sportsbar and Pizzeria.
It had all the elements - a strange crust, all the traditional toppings and the thinly sliced potato, plus a generous drizzle of olive oil.
Just across the square, and even less outwardly appealing, we found Rizzle's pizzeria, which was attached to a sweets shop and sold a lot of deep-dish pies and green pea pastries called pastizzi (another local treat). In their window, though, were some excellent examples of classic ftira.
The crust is unleavened, but still bouncy and doughy. It's reminiscent, somehow, of focaccia or - as Rebecca noted - very thick eggroll wrapper. The texture is chewy and it oozes oil, almost as though it were fried.
We bought a small one and decided, at that point, that Rizzle's was the best. We almost decided to stop eating this stuff - ftira fatigue, one could call it.
Malta is often mistakenly thought of as somehow Italian. In fact, it's decidedly un-Italian, with its own language, traditions and feel. Much of the tongue and culture is more north African than anything, and modern influences are heavily British. The word ftira is actually Tunisian, and calling this stuff pizza, just because it's round and flat (and Malta is close to Italy), is an attempt at fitting something exotic into a familiar role. That's what had me confused at first, and what has every pizzeria in the country offering inauthentic "gozitan ftira."
Above, premade, frozen ftira sold at Jubilee foods, in Victoria.
So, what does a perfect ftira look like, and where can you find it?
On a sun-baked street, in the quiet maze of little Nadur, is the incomparable Maxokk bakery. Open for over fifty years, the little storefront initially baked and sold all kinds of bread, but then gave in. Their ftajjar was so popular that they decided to dedicate their whole business to it.
Run by a small old lady and a large young man, Maxokk sells ftira either cooked, and ready to eat, or "half cooked," designed to be finished at home. There are no tables, just a couple of benches under a tree in the square outside. There is pizza on the menu, but nobody orders it - everyone comes for the specialty.
And it is delicious. The potatoes are crisp and well cooked, the tomatoes are melted, the capers and anchovies add a perfect level of salt and brine. We ate our ftira in a reverent state, in awe. This was completely different than pizza or bread - it was a kind of heavenly, savory tart. This is what a local specialty should taste like: surprising, interesting, specific and confusing.

4 comments:

  1. First time I commented in a blog! I really enjoy it. You have an awesome post. Please do more articles like this. I'm gonna come back surely. God bless.

    Rica
    www.imarksweb.org

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  2. Good article, but I can't understand this disassociation with Italy.

    "Malta is often mistakenly thought of as somehow Italian. In fact, it's decidedly un-Italian"

    Well, Italian was the official language of Malta for about 700 years, so it's not surprising. 66% of the population currently speak Italian as well.

    "with its own language, traditions and feel. Much of the tongue and culture is more north African than anything"

    Agreed with the first part, but it's closer to SICILIAN culture than anything. No offence, but 700 years of European rule and an almost-fanatic Catholic faith makes it hard for our culture to be associated with North Africa. We call Sicilians 'our cousins' for crying out loud, and we spend at least 300 years raiding Muslim ships and 500-600 years fighting against North African pirates.

    Our language is very similar to Maghrebi Arabic (like Tunisian), true, it is in fact descended from Medieval Sicilian Arabic which comes from Maghrebi Arabic, and was then mixed with Sicilian Italian, Tuscan (standard) Italian, some French and 'recently' English. But remember that they spoke Arabic in Sicily too for a very long period.

    Our food is mostly inspired by Sicilian cuisine, and obviously there are influences from Italy, North Africa, France, Spain, Britain and every Empire that ruled us. Again, just like Sicily.

    Good article like I said, but it seems very poorly research and based only on first impressions. A bit of study on Maltese and Sicilian cultures would have been useful I think.

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  3. Wow! I am afraid you got Malta and Gozo really wrong!! Especially when you said that " Much of the tongue and culture is more north African than anything". The language is like Jan Faizon said. As for the culture, gosh, nothing could be more unlikely. Maybe you should do some more research, and then visit the Maltese archipelago again?... .

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  4. Hey!

    I wish you'd visit Gozo again and come to Mekren's bakery this time, that's where I am working now since two years. My boyfriend is the son of the owners there, I'm German immigrant, if you wanna say so, and got to know the Gozitan culture through this small traditional bakery.

    To clear up the term of ftira and ftajjar: Ftira is the Maltese singular term, ftajjar is the plural form.
    Now what is ftira? As you found out there is two forms: The plain small bread sandwich, which will be filled with tomato paste, tuna, onions, capers and olives. And the pizza form, which is mainly famous in Gozo. Now ftira pizza is different in dough from real pizza (which might explain your disappointment in some restaurants here since they do not use the bread dough). We use bread dough for ftira, which makes it very tasty and crisp. Then I find that potatoes and local ingredients are also what makes a ftira. Anchovies or tuna are often combined with a potato layer, juicy tomatoes and sweet caramalized onions with salty olives and tangy capers give the ftira their taste. There's also the closed famous sheep cheese ftira, which you should try out one day.
    A really good ftira is best baked in a traditional wood burning oven, since it gives it the best flavour, that's why Mekren's and Maxokk bakery are so famous!

    Kind regards
    Julia

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