Honey, Sea Salt, and History: Gourmet Gifts from the Maltese Islands

Honey, Sea Salt, and History: Gourmet Gifts from the Maltese Islands
Updated on
January 30, 2023

The value of a gift lies not in the price tag, but in the story it tells. When you’re living in Malta, you want to be able to share a valuable story of the islands with friends and family.

Gourmet gifts are a great platform for sharing your stories. By giving these Maltese delicacies, you are able to entertain and inform those you care about.

But, even more interestingly, in the process of giving, you too become a part of the story.

Maltese Honey

Malta literally means honey. The name derives from Melite, the Ancient Greek word for “honey-sweet.”

Roughly 2,800 years ago, the Ancient Phoenicians are thought to have introduced honey production to Malta. They tamed swarms of wild bees in large clay jars. Much like a natural hive, the narrow entrance offered protection for the bees, encouraging them to build their honeycombs inside.

Ruins of an ancient beehive collection, or apiary, can be found on Malta’s Xemxija Heritage Trail.

This limestone structure has over 20 holes for beehives and has a roof made of crushed pottery and sand, indicating that it may date as far back as the Phoenicians.

The Ancient Greeks and Romans treasured Maltese honey, not only for its culinary value, but for its health properties. Honey’s antibacterial benefits were used to treat open wounds throughout the Mediterranean world.

Malta has over 1,000 different species of wild flora, offering unique culinary experiences. This biodiversity also contributes to an assortment of honey flavors.

Three different types of honey are produced in Malta, depending upon the flowers in season:

  1. Spring Honey — This peach-colored honey is made from a wide selection of spring flowers, including wild thistle, sulla, borage, dandelion, wild mustard, and citrus blooms.
  2. Summer Honey — The fragrant, purple flowers of wild thyme are the predominant nectar in Malta’s summer honey. This honey is quite thick and has a bright golden hue.
  3. Autumn Honey — Dark and decadent, this Maltese honey earns its sweet caramel texture and flavor from carob and eucalyptus flowers.

A jar of honey might just be the perfect symbol of Malta. If it was so prized by ancient civilizations that they named the islands after it, then Maltese honey can be a precious addition to morning toast, oatmeal, or a cup of tea.

Mediterranean Sea Salt

The history of the Mediterranean is in many ways defined by salt.

Six million years ago, the Mediterranean dried up completely in an event known as the Messinian Salinity Crisis. The event left a layer of salt nearly two kilometers’ high that is still mined today.

For most of human history, salt has been incredibly valuable. Used to flavor and preserve food, salt was even used as a currency.

In Ancient Rome, a portion of a soldier’s income was paid in salt. This form of payment became referred to as solarium argentum — the root of the word “salary.”

The wealth of the Venetian Empire was built on salt. The lagoon that surrounds Venice was perfect for evaporating seawater and harvesting salt, which could be traded in Constantinople (Istanbul) for gold and spice.

Malta’s production of sea salt dates at least to the Roman occupation of the islands. Salt pans were carved into the limestone rock and were used to collect and evaporate seawater. Today, salt is still produced in pans carved from the rock.

On Gozo, the salt pans take advantage of the region’s abundant sunshine. This solar energy evaporates over one meter of sea water from the surface of the Mediterranean each year.

“Salt harvests are carried out during the summer months,” says Josephine Xuereb of E. Cini Salt on Gozo. Josephine’s family has been harvesting salt in the village of Xwejni for over a century.

“[The company] has been … in the family since 1860,” says Josephine. “I am the 5th generation.”

During a good summer, Josephine’s family will harvest up to 20 metric tons of sea salt. However, when storms rip across the Mediterranean, the wind and waves can disrupt production.

“Usually every week we will have a collection,” says Josephine. “When it is stormy during the peak of summer, it disrupts [production] and the salinated water takes longer to regenerate.”

Sea salt is an ideal gourmet gift from Malta. It encapsulates the history of the Mediterranean itself.

White Olives

The Maltese Pearl, or Perla Maltese, is a rare white olive native to Malta. Driven to the brink of extinction, this olive is making a comeback due to the combined efforts of Malta’s Department of Agriculture and Sam Cremona, a local olive oil producer.

One of the earliest mentions of this prized pearl was in a recipe written in the mid-1700s during the reign of Grand Master Fonseca of the Knights of Malta.

If you can get your hands on this rare Maltese delicacy, it would make an ideal gourmet gift for those seeking a historical, luxurious flavor.

Gozo Cheeselets

If you’re feeling naughty, give a gift of a couple of Gozo cheeselets, or ġbejna. These traditional little cheeses are largely forbidden.

When Malta joined the European Union in 2004, the country was ordered to stop producing this traditional goat cheese due to a lack of pasteurization. However, local demand continued, prompting Brussels to consider exemptions for limited production of the ġbejna.

Today, many of these cheeselets conform to EU standards and fall into two different categories: fresh and dried. Fresh cheeselets are sold either plain or salted within three days of production. Dried cheeselets are sold either plain or peppered.

This sour and spicy cheese will have you grimacing and smiling at the same time and would make a great gift. However, to ensure safety, be sure it has been pasteurized.

Gozo Tomatoes

Another delicacy from Gozo actually comes from the New World — the tomato. This ubiquitous fruit traces its roots to the Aztecs around 700 CE.

Introduced to Europe in the 1500s, the tomato was once considered to be a red villain to Old World nobility. Its high acidity would soak into aristocratic pewter plates, causing the metal’s high lead content to leach out and poison the consumer.

Today, Malta and Gozo produce over 9,000 metric tons of tomatoes each year. These tomatoes are eaten fresh, sun-dried, or are converted into a local paste called kunserva. Almost 90% of all Maltese reportedly use kunserva everyday, often spread over crispy Maltese bread.

Both sun-dried tomatoes and kunserva would make excellent gifts for the gourmet in your life.

Prickly Pear Jam

In addition to the tomato, the Aztecs have influenced another gourmet gift in Malta: prickly pear jam.

The Aztecs held the prickly pear to be sacred. It is even shown on the Mexican flag today and represents the founding of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital.

When exploring the Maltese countryside, you will see hedgerows of a prickly pear cactus. Imported over 300 years ago from the New World, the cacti act as natural windbreakers and barbed wire.

The Maltese abundance of prickly pear fruit makes for plenty of jam. Give a jar as a gourmet gift, and if you handle the fresh fruit, watch out for the thorns!

Citrus Marmalade

While oranges and lemons may have originated in Southeast Asia, they were brought to Malta by the Arabs in 870 CE.

The Maltese Orange, a common variety of blood orange, is thought to have originated in Malta. Its prized red color has been coveted for centuries. The Knights of St. John recognized the preeminence of Malta’s citrus and exported it around the Mediterranean.

The finest oranges were sent as gifts to other European capitals.

“The greatest part of their crop is sent in presents to the different courts of Europe,” wrote Patrick Byrdone, a Scottish travel writer, in 1773.

Today, marmalade made from Maltese citrus is a gourmet gift fit for a king or queen. If it worked for diplomacy in the 18th century, it will certainly work for royalty today.

Buying Maltese Gourmet Gifts

Finding authentic, high-quality gifts from Malta may be tricky. If you need any help, our concierge would be glad to assist.

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