Writing in today’s Times, Lino Spiteri comments on the probable increase in the price of the loaf of bread – particularly of the Maltese ħobża. Spiteri’s comment is not exactly a protest against the inevitable liberalisation of the Maltese bread market but rather an appeal that something be done to preserve the nature of the Maltese ħobża. I have not been to a Maltese grocer or baker in ages (being a Coeliac such occasions become a rare escapade) so I will have to take Lino’s word for how popular the Maltese form of bread remains popular with consumers.
Typical bread is however a trademark of a particular culture. It is not just the bread itself but the time of its purchase and the mode of consumption that give it it’s nature as part of a national heritage. You only have to pop into any French boulanger to understand what I am saying. Personally, even if I were to avoid any sexual innuendos, I find the baguette’s shape unpractical and unwieldy when compared to other forms of bread available in the hexagon. From the pain campagnarde to the pain de mie to the boule, these are just a smattering of the wide array of breads the boulanger will display in his counter. There is the ficelle (literally string) that is a thinner version of the baguette. You have the fougasse – a wonderful creation that comes ready with bacon, onion and herbs… I could go on.
The baguette has not been spared the attack of the increase in price of world that has been reflected worldwide. Neither has the traditional white English loaf in England – that pale unappetising bread that transforms into a pure delicacy when combined with the zillion possibilities of making a sandwich. While in the US I was impressed with their obsession with bagels – to me it was just another shape but it turns out that that is quite a barbaric assessment in the world of breadly assessments.
The ħobża is a countryman’s business. Similar to the pain campagnard in France it’s consistency is such to allow the oiliest of preparations that will be absorbed in it’s multiple holes and conserved by the lovely thick crust. When I was young I would know the exact time of arrival of the baker’s van in Paceville (yes, Paceville… not just pimps, hos and KFC) and rush to buy the half-loaf. I would cut that in thick slices and spread copious amounts of butter that would melt on the surface and dribble down the side of my mouth as I bit into the fare enthusiastically. For a taste of pure heaven squashing a tomato across the surface, dozing it generously with sunflower oil, salt and pepper and then cutting pieces of peppered gbejna is the ideal.
I remember someone in my family telling me that farmers would remove the inner core of the bread and fill it with tomatoes, capers etc and dozing it with oil before eating it. It’s all about tradition in the end. The Maltese bread might not be able to compete with the different “French” bread that the superstores churn out nowadays but Lino is right… the tradition of making and tasting our very own version must be preserved. I believe that it is up to a luminary businessman to get the recipe and mixture right and transform it into a delicacy. When I say delicacy I say so bearing in mind market costs… we might be about to forego the ħobża for daily consumption but that is a price to pay for the current world market condition. The French already fork out €1 for a baguette (if I am not mistaken)… be prepared to do the same for you ħobża some time soon.