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Emily in Malta: local potatoes

emily A Francis and Paul Zammit

The column Emily In Malta is designed to take you on a journey as both a tourist and a local, into Malta. We will be exploring food, drink and dishes that are grown and created locally. Follow along with this column as we explore further into the culture and cuisine of the Maltese Islands, starting off with fresh foods as a single item, grown and harvested locally. I want to explore the farming methods and speak with local farmers, growers and chefs around the country. The way that food is handled and processed is such an important part to learn, in order to feed our families in the best way that we can

Local potatoes

I want to talk about my love for Maltese potatoes, specifically. They are, hand on heart, the best I have ever tasted! Once we were turned onto the local potatoes, we have never looked back. My family and I make sure to find the bag with the St John’s Cross on it, which lets us know that those grown right down the road, are the most beautiful and pure potatoes we can get.

The potatoes are still covered in dirt and need to be washed by using water and/or water with a drop of dish soap. That was something I learned from a class I took at a cooking academy here on the island. I believe this might be due to restaurant policy as there are different sets of cleaning standards between home cooking and restaurant preparations. Due to the fact that the root vegetables come right out of the dirt, it can be necessary to wash not just with water, but with actual dish soap. In the States, we just rinse off with water or used a vinegar-based fruit and vegetable spray. I had never been advised to use dish soap on our foods to clean them.

The dish soap and laundry soaps are totally different brands here in Malta, as the EU has different bans on some of the chemicals that US companies tend to use. The soaps here are less harsh and not as pungent with regards to the scents or even the colouring they use. Basically, everything here seems to be truer to its natural form. The difference is incredible.

Dr Oz, a prominent heart surgeon hailing from Turkey but living in New York City, has a talk show where he discusses various health aspects. He did an episode once, several years ago, about how in America, the regular potato goes through a process of bleaching several times before it winds up in the bag at your local grocery. The amount of toxins coming from those vegetables is hideous. From that day on, I bought organic potatoes and resisted buying them if they didn’t have them in stock.

However, when you eat out in the United States, you are basically guaranteed that the potatoes you are eating have been through the many processes of being bleached. This is a quote from his article on potatoes in the United States: “To know how a conventional potato is grown is to get a crash course in exactly how so many chemicals make it to your plate. Before potatoes are even planted the soil is treated with insecticides to kill bugs. Then potato seeds are drenched with fungicide to prevent plight. All before the crops are sprayed with pesticides as they grow.” {1} 

Now jump over to Malta, where the potatoes are grown locally. This does not apply. Malta has a total ban on GMO foods that are grown locally in Malta. {2} This means that anything planted and harvested here on the local soil has not been sprayed with the chemicals that are known to cause cancer such as glyphosate. {3}

Meeting Paul Zammit at Karwija Farm

I had the great privilege of visiting a local potato farmer at his farm, in the limits of Safi, near the Malta International Airport, called Karwija Farm. His name is Paul Zammit and he is a farmer with the Jansen-Dongen company. They provide potatoes to Malta’s national airline, Air Malta, as well as to the Netherlands. {4} He has been one of their farmers for over ten years. Paul comes from a family of farmers and has been harvesting his own potatoes since the age of 13. It is a true family business. I wanted to see the potatoes in its original form still under the ground. I had heard that you basically uncover them like an Easter Egg hunt. I wanted to witness the process from start to cart.

Paul is one of the kindest and most lovely people I have ever met. He exemplifies everything I love about the Maltese. He welcomed us with open arms and took great pride in showing us the potatoes they grow, as well as the records of being a Certified “Global Gap” farm. This means that, amongst others, the demands for security of the food and the environmental demands are being taken into account at the desired level. {5} Paul also showed us the paperwork on having both the soil tested as well as the water for quality and health.

In order to plant the potatoes, they ‘seed the potatoes’ by cutting them into quarters to sprout and then, they are planted into the soil. Paul took me to the garden to see the rows of potatoes and I have to say, I have never seen a potato field before! Though it was in rows and lines of slight mounds of soil with dried leaves and roots atop, never would I have realised from this sight that potatoes are what was growing beneath the surface! Forever now, I will be able to recognise a potato field after he taught me what to look for.

First, Paul showed us that what looked like dried soil. In reality, what he was showing us were the roots from the ground, which showed that the potatoes are now ripe and ready to be dug out. This is known as the tuber. “A tuber is the thickened part of a stem that grows underground. It has buds capable of producing a new plant by vegetative propagation. A tuber stores a large amount of edible starch which is used as food. Hence, the edible part of the potato is the stem.” {6}

The branches and roots were no longer attached to the potatoes anymore and had dried up in the sun. They sat atop of the soil alerting us to the potatoes that were still buried beneath. Under the bunches of dried roots, hide little jewels of beautiful and perfect potatoes. It was like digging for Easter eggs!

Paul put on his potato gloves and began to dig with his hands, pulling out jewel after jewel of the potatoes. They were so clean, even coming right from the soil. It was unbelievable! This is exactly how they package them into the bags to be washed at home. He said his potatoes didn’t need to be washed with dish soap and simply could be rinsed off with water if we planned to eat the skin, or peel away the skin and the potatoes did not require any washing, though usually they rinse them in water once they have been peeled. Somehow, I managed to find the farm with the cleanest, purest and most delicious potatoes. The love inside these potatoes is evident. Paul Zammit is a lifelong farmer, learning the trade from his father and his grandfather. He is passing these skills down to his own family and the farm remains tightly run by family only.

To celebrate the harvest, each member of the family gets to dig out their own potatoes to prepare for that night’s feast. They set up tables and a large oven outside, where they cook the potatoes with meat. Adding some local Maltese wine to the mix, they have a big celebration of thanks and good blessings and celebrate the good fortune of the year’s crop.

I was celebrating my own good fortune when he sent me home with a bag of potatoes that he had just dug out of the ground. The proof is definitely in the potato. There is absolutely no question that there is love in Paul Zammit’s work and I can taste it in every beautiful bite.

Mustard Potatoes Au Gratin

Photo: Emily A Francis

I like to add my favorite recipe per ingredient or dish that we will be covering in an article. Today I am happy to share my tried-and-true mustard potatoes au gratin that I make for ever holiday. Every time I make this dish, someone always asks me for the recipe. I first tasted this dish at my aunt’s house several years ago at Christmas. I went absolutely crazy for her potato dish and begged her to share with me the recipe. It comes from Taste of Home {7}

Ingredients

1/3 cup finely chopped green onions

3 tablespoons butter divided

2 cups heavy whipping cream

½ cup Dijon mustard

1 cup (4 oz) shredded Swiss or Gruyere cheese (divided) *I always go with the Gruyere

8 medium potatoes (or 4 if you are using an 20x20cm baking dish)

Method

  1. In a small saucepan cook the sliced onions in 1 tablespoon of butter for two minutes. Stir in the heavy cream, mustard and remaining butter. Bring this to a boil. Once it hits the boiling point, lower the heat to simmer and let cook 5 minutes more.
  2. Reduce heat to low and stir in half of the cheese until it’s melted into the sauce completely. Then remove the pan from the heat. Layer the potatoes in three layers. Starting with one single layer pour the sauce over the whole pan and repeat with two more layers. On the top layer, sprinkle with the remaining cheese.
  3. Bake uncovered first for 25-30 minutes at 195 Celsius/400 Fahrenheit. After the first 30 minutes cover the pan with aluminium foil for 25 more minutes. Let it stand at least 5 minutes before serving. Yields 12 servings if a 33x23cm pan

References

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