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Emily in Malta: Mġarr strawberries

Today, we’ll be focusing on Maltese strawberries.

The strawberry packs a mighty punch when it comes to what that little fruit is all about. One of the highest allergy-inducing foods around, both strawberries and tomatoes can present with a sensitivity in those who are allergic to birch pollen. {1} This is also due to the way in which conventional strawberries (and tomatoes) are grown and handled.

The health benefits of strawberries are impressive. They are not a high glycemic fruit and therefore can be enjoyed without guilt by diabetics. They are thought to help reduce inflammation in arthritis and the high levels of antioxidants can even help to prevent strokes. They are a solid source of potassium (it’s not just bananas), contain a good amount of vitamin C (not just oranges) that help strengthen our immune system. An additional plus, if you are considered to be middle-aged like I am, you’ll be happy to know that strawberries contain ellagic acid, which helps to prevent the loss of collagen to keep your skin looking younger and healthier. Those ellagic acids found in strawberries also help with your eyes and help slow down the degeneration of eyesight. {2}

The strawberry fruit itself is also one of the most sensitive foods among the world’s produce. They absorb every toxin that enters its sphere, in a way that tops the charts of what not to eat if it has been handled poorly or been genetically modified. In the United States, due to its use of heavy pesticides, fungicides and insecticides as well as GMO seeds, the conventional strawberry is laced with toxins. Sadly, it’s not just the US that uses these sprays on its foods. According to the research, the EU countries that opted out of placing a ban on GMOs include Scotland, Whales, Northern Ireland and the French Speaking part of Belgium known as Wallonia. {3}

American-based agency known as The Environmental Working Group puts out a list every year called the Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen. {4} The dirty dozen is the 12 fruits or vegetables that you never want to eat if not organic, due to its sensitivity to absorb the toxic poisons sprayed on them from the time of planting and as they grow. The clean fifteen is the list of foods that you can eat, even if it has been commercially grown, as it is safer than the more sensitive produce with regard to the chemicals it is grown under. As I’ve mentioned before, GMO foods and the foods that are legal in the US that are not labeled either organic or GMO-Free Verified with the Butterfly Logo, do contain ingredients that are linked to cancer, auto-immune diseases and sensory issues among children and adults alike. {5} Every year, the list is published and strawberries are always the number one food not to eat if it has been sprayed with chemicals, which are dangerous to our health. Just for information’s sake, I have listed both the dirty dozen and the clean fifteen below.

2021 dirty dozen

Apples, bell and hot peppers, cherries, celery, grapes, kale/collard/mustard greens, nectarines, peaches, pears, spinach, strawberries and tomatoes

2021 clean 15

Asparagus, avocados, broccoli, cabbage, cantaloupe melon, cauliflower, eggplant, frozen sweet peas, honeydew melon, kiwi mushrooms, onions, papayas, pineapples, sweet corn

In beautiful Malta, these lists do not exist. Do you know why? Because Malta has a total ban on GMO foods if locally grown! {3} This does not mean that foods that are imported have the same standards, so you do need to read the labels of origin and familiarise yourself with what growing practices those countries allow, when it comes to GMOs and sprays.

When you are checking your labels of origin, look for the members of the EU who also have a total ban on GMOs. These labels are your friends and lets you know that the foods produced from here are of the highest quality standards:

France, Germany, Austria, Greece, Hungary, the Netherlands, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Bulgaria, Poland, Denmark, Malta, Slovenia, Italy and Croatia have chosen a total ban. {3}

Strawberries grown and harvested in Malta

Now we can discuss strawberries as the wonderful, delightful, delicious and simple fruit that it was always meant to be! We took a trip down to Mġarr, also known as the location where some of the best fruits and vegetables are known to grow on the island. We visited Aaron Camilleri at Ta’ Salut Farm to see his incredible harvest of perfectly ripe strawberries. Aaron is a lifelong farmer who learned from his father, grandfather and beyond. We even got to meet Benny, his father, when we arrived at the strawberry patch as he had just returned from selling fruits and vegetables on their truck that day. They both were so lovely and so inviting to all of us. This is a testimony to the Maltese farmers. I have come to deeply adore each that I have met. I believe that getting to mingle with the soil, the sun, the water, and mother earth herself on a daily basis makes for a much happier person. They know what life is truly about. They put love into everything they do and it shows in their harvests and it also shows in their personalities. They are happy, kind, loving, inviting people who are open to sharing their wisdom with people who want to learn from it. I have yet to be disappointed meeting any local farmer here in Malta. Knock on wood.

Photo: Benny and Aaron Camilleri (back) and Ava and Hannah Francis (front)

Time for a little story. I have never in my life eaten a strawberry right from the ground. I know what you must be thinking and you would be correct. I am a sheltered one when it comes to farming of any sort! I never lived near any farms in the US.

Once when I was at a swanky bar in Los Angeles, California, they had strawberries growing from potted plants all around the outside bar and pool. The pots were for decoration, I think, but the fruits were real. They were hanging off the latticework all around the pool area. Having several glasses of champagne made me want to try them and I ended up eating almost every strawberry in every pot because they were so ripe and delicious. Until meeting Aaron, those were always what came to mind when I would think of the best strawberries I have ever eaten.

But those little potted strawberries have officially been beat by a long shot. The strawberries at Aaron’s farm are so clean that they do not need to be washed before eating. The purity of this fruit blows my mind and my taste buds.

Aaron Camilleri

I brought my girls along for the interview and they ate the strawberries as if they were candy growing from the ground. Until that very afternoon, one of my children always claimed that she didn’t like strawberries and I could never get her to eat them. Her sister, on the other hand, would eat bowls of them with whipped cream almost daily when they were in season.

My little picky eater tried one of Aaron’s fresh strawberries and she could not get enough of the plumpy red jewels. Every time we would bend down and find a shiny red strawberry, we just had to pull it and eat it. We could not help ourselves. Each little strawberry tasted better than the one before.

According to Aaron, strawberries are first planted here at the start of September and again at the end of the same month, depending on the variety. The first strawberry is then cut in December, with their peak being during April and May but they’re grown well into June.

The Maltese are so passionate about their strawberries that they have an annual festival in Mġarr called Festa Frawli. The village turns red with the colour of the strawberries and offers various foods and drink that have strawberries as the main ingredient. {6}

When farmers begin the planting process of the strawberries, they cover the soil with plastic so that the fruits do not touch the soil. The soil is sprayed once at the very beginning to make sure that the red spider does not get to the fruit. If the red spiders make it to the strawberries, the harvest will die. They also use fertiliser for the soil. However, even with the spray and fertilisers, due to Malta’s high-quality standards, they do not contain the heavily toxic and cancer-causing agents of GMO ingredients: glyphosphate or POEA polyoxyethyleneamine: the most dangerous in combination of all weed killers to humans commonly used in home garden supplies in countries without the ban. {7}

From the time that they plant the actual strawberries, no sprays are used. Tending to the strawberries is a daily to weekly affair and requires a lot of maintenance to ensure they are growing properly and will yield a bountiful harvest. The plastic covering over the soil is kept in place because of the high levels of humidity that exists in Malta. The strawberry is an extremely delicate fruit, according to Aaron and due to the humidity, it must remain above the soil without any contact whatsoever.

When the strawberries are in season, they’re cut every single day, boxed and delivered to the local stores and fruit trucks and made available for those that want to buy directly from their farm. Ta’ Salut Farm has around 80,000 strawberry plants and on average, they load 50 boxes a day with strawberries.

If you’re impressed by those numbers, you’ll be shocked to know that the whole of Malta imports between one and two million strawberry plants every single year, both from Spain and Italy. It’s easy to know if the strawberry is ripe because it becomes red and beautiful. Before it’s ripe, it will have a green colour on it. The deeper the red, the riper and ready to be eaten it is.

Strawberries can be rinsed with water but do not need to be, since the fruit here is GMO free and comes from the purest soil. Even more so when you know exactly which farm you are buying your strawberries from. Of course, to keep strawberries fresh, they can be refrigerated, if you do not plan on eating them on the day you get them and they can also be frozen. According to Aaron however, the strawberries are meant to be purchased and eaten on the same day. For this reason, his farm has begun selling half size boxes as well as their regular sized strawberry boxes, so that the strawberries can remain fresh and eaten as suggested.

 Strawberry Salad with Ġbejniet

Today’s recipe comes as a bit of an adaptation to an American strawberry salad that was always popular during the season. In the restaurants however, it was a strawberry salad with feta cheese, walnuts and a raspberry vinaigrette dressing. For our salad I went Malta all the way with ġbejniet cheese and a strawberry vinaigrette instead of changing berries for the dressing.





Ġbejniet (sliced into quarters)

Strawberry Vinaigrette dressing

Strawberries (about 3-5 strawberries according to sweetness)

Dijon mustard (1 tsp)

Olive oil (1/4 cup)

Lemon juice (1 tbs)

Add fresh basil or other herbs for flavour if you wish

To top it off… grab a cocktail (perhaps the flat peach infused white wine sangria from my previous article?) and gather your friends and celebrate. After all, that is the true essence of Malta, isn’t it?

Friends, food and love!