time to explore with esplora

Emily in malta: picking tomatoes in binġemma

Emily in malta: picking tomatoes in binġemma

For today’s adventure, we met with Joseph Muscat from Malta Sunripe. He and his brother Charles are best known around the island and more specifically, within the farmer’s circles in Mġarr, for their fresh-off-the-vine tomatoes, as well as their renowned sundried tomatoes.

It’s all about the tomatoes

Tomatoes grow year-round in Malta however, there is a process that allows for that to occur. There are two different ways to grow tomatoes, the first is with the tomato bush, which is grown outdoors in the soil and makes use of direct sunlight to grow tomatoes perfect for tomato paste, as well as those that will eventually be sun-dried tomatoes. The second way is known as suspended growing. This refers to tomatoes that are grown inside a greenhouse. The tomato bush is grown during the summer months and the greenhouse tomatoes start growing in November, all the way through to the end of May. Of course, due to climate change, the exact times of harvest may vary.

This year, for instance, the summer heatwaves resulted in the production of very few sun-dried tomatoes. The heavy rains and freak storms that followed drowned much of the vegetation that was being grown. Thankfully, in the greenhouse, the heavy rain does not affect the tomatoes growing inside. According to Joseph, heavy rain and winds used to occur once every three years or so and now, it is happening so often that farmers have to recover much of the time from the damage. Therefore, farmers try to collect every drop of rain during winter, to be able to use during the summer months.

The Muscat brothers

Emily A Francis and Joseph Muscat

Joseph and Charles Muscat have a total of five greenhouses around the Maltese Islands, in which they produce their winter tomatoes for the fresh market locally. With regards to those grown in the greenhouse, the tomatoes are suspended by a hook at the top, with eight metres of twine that runs all along the entire vine from the top and are securely tied at the bottom. Once the tomatoes start to ripen, you can find the ‘picking knot’, which grows between the tomato stem, connecting it to the vine. Joseph showed us how to hold the tomato by placing one’s thumb on the knot and snapping the tomato clean off the vine, keeping the little green leaves at the top of the tomato in pristine shape so they can still look good for the fresh market.

As he so eloquently described, “see, nature is perfect as long as we don’t mess it up!” Once a tomato is cut, it needs to be kept out on the table and not refrigerated, as placing it in a fridge will result in it losing its vitamins and mineral content. It can stay fresh for up to two weeks!

Tari Tari Products

The family also has a second operation that they run with all their realtives, inlcuding their wives and their extended family, who make wine and oil, among other products. Their store in Mġarr sells local artisinal products, most of which are under their own label called Tari Tari. They carry beautiful offerings of sundried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, capers, jams and marmalades, chili sauce, olive oil, red and white wine, tomato relish, hummus, pickles, caponata, olives and aubergines in oil as well as lemon, pomegranate and prickly pear liqueurs. They also create stunning hampers with various gifts inside, that are available in a myriad of different shapes and sizes.

The hampers are for sale the whole year round but are usually inundated with orders around Christmas time.

At Malta Sunripe, the wine cellar is down below, where they make their Tari Tari red and white wines. On the floor above the main level, you will find a kitchen and a small theatre, where they show a documentary about their greenhouse farming and family history. They welcome groups of tourists, both local and travellers, who are curious to see how all the beautiful food and drink is made. In order to book a half-day tour at Malta Sunripe, complete with the tour of the greenhouse and the artisanal shop, all topped off with a traditional Maltese farmer’s lunch, you need to book through an agent to make your reservation. After visiting their shop, I would definitely recommend going for a visit or gathering a group for a day trip. For more information, check out www.maltasunripe.com