Scenes from Gozo.
Gozo is the second of the three Maltese islands. When you consider that the smallest has only three (elderly) inhabitants, and that Gozo itself is only 8.7 x 4.5 miles, you might be surprised to learn that Gozo has a food culture all of its own. Best among this is the Gozitan fresh cheese, Ġbejniet. I made it my mission to meet a cheesemaker while I was on the island and explore this. The world is a smaller tighter place when you can get close to the origins of your food, and the people who make it.
Ġbejniet is made daily by small farmers (one I met, Victor, from the charming Dreams of Horses farm has just a few sheep and makes it daily). I managed to track down Rikardu, who has a farm with 200 sheep and goats which he milks by hand daily, and then makes fresh cheese with the milk while it is still warm. He sells the cheese in his restaurant Ta’ Rikardu, where you can have the fresh cheese (Ġbejniet) on its own, or a platter for two of fresh cheese, wind dried cheese and peppered cheese (at just €8.95). .
Rikardu, making his cheese.
Rikardu starts by adding rennet to the milk. The rennet which he uses now is a commercial product, however, before the tradition was to kill a suckling sheep and use the stomach (from which rennet is obtained) to set the cheese by letting it sit in the whey for 3 days. This whey would then be used for up to a few months. The milk, with rennet added, is allowed to sit until it sets, which takes about 20 minutes. Rikardu then pours it into individual moulds (little plastic baskets, really), which are allowed to drain for about 10 minutes, before each cheese is turned within gently, all by hand. The cheese is good to eat a few hours later, and for up to a couple of days. Rikardu showed me an original wicker mould too, but these are expensive now and also less practical when it comes to cleaning them.
Rikardu serves the fresh cheese, but also dries a portion of the cheese in the traditional manner by air drying it when there is a north wind for a couple of days. A south wind frequently has dust from the Sahara, so it is not wise to air dry it then. In the last couple of years he has invested in fridges to do this too. The result is a tangy, firmer and creamy cheese with a gentle tough exterior, not quite a rind. He serves it like this, but this is also preserved in wine and black peppers. This lasts for months and is terrific. Rikardu sells it in his restaurant too.
Watching Rikardu make his cheese with such love and care was a joy. His cheese is made from a combination of sheep and goats milk, more sheep (he has more sheep and also the yields from sheep milk are higher). It is traditional too. Like everywhere it is difficult for small farmers to survive now, but Rikardu has found a way with his restaurant. It is clear he works very hard and he produces great cheese, and homemade pastas too. When I knew that I would be meeting him, I popped in for dinner the night before and enjoyed some homemade Maltese ravjul, filled with gbejniet & egg. They are bigger with a thicker pasta shell than ravioli. Served with a fresh tomato sauce, they are hearty and fresh, and make a perfect lunch.
Rikardu, and people like him, working hard as they do, adhering to and preserving tradition, deserve out admiration and respect, but also our custom. The food at Rikardu’s was some of the best local traditional food that I had on Gozo. So, go eat his cheese and ravjul on the terrace of his restaurant, under the sky and overlooking the city, to the tune of the cathedral bells.
4, Triq il-Fosos, Ċittadella, Ir-Rabat (Victoria) VCT1842, Gozo
I visited Malta for Blog Island, created and sponsored by the Malta Tourism Authority in partnership with iambassador. All editorial is my own, as always, and Rikardu was kind enough to give me his time, for which I am very grateful.