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Chocolate In Malta: A Decadent History

by Chiara Micallef

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A sumptuously silky, creamy and delectable treat, favourite to most and with surprisingly deep roots braided within Malta's rich history, chocolate has been the object of our country's affection since the 17th century.  

The Maltese diet was collectively described as stingy and bland by numerous sources up until the 16th century, however, it is interesting to note that it was also during this time that great culinary innovations found their way into Malta's ports. Tomatoes, potatoes, corn, turkeys, pineapples and bananas were introduced to the Maltese islands, while new drinks, such as coffee, tea and the illustrious cocoa bean made their way to our shores. 

Most of these ingenious culinary marvels came from the Americas, thanks to the Spanish conquistadores – some of whom were closely connected to the Knights of St John's Catalan, Aragonese and Navarre factions. 

Many of these unfamiliar treats, were predominantly bought by the island's nobility due to their expensive nature. Yet, while chocolate was limited within the local market at first, it steadily became a popular treat, with contemporary local scientists regularly studying its nutritional benefits. 

A Craze That Took Over Europe 

Numerous historical sources, such as Scottish wanderer Patrick Brydone's travelling journal, point to drinking chocolate's popularity in Malta.

Other sources include a book written by local poet and doctor to the Order of St John, Francesco Buonamico, titled Trattato della Cioccolata. In this manuscript, he stated that Malta was the forerunner in the chocolate-drinking craze that swept across Europe. This manuscript addressed the various benefits of drinking chocolate – such as its liver-cleansing and thirst-quenching properties. Buonamico also noted that chocolate should not be overconsumed during the summer months, as it could cause severe flatulence. 

chocolate malta francesco buonamico

RSekulovich, Gian Francesco Buonamico, via Wikimedia Commons

In the Trattato della Cioccolata, one can even find recipes to turn cocoa into solid bars that can be dissolved for drinking. A fascinating recipe in this manuscript is one strictly earmarked for 'common' people, where a mixture of sugar, cloves, rose water, allspice and cinnamon was added to the cocoa bars. 

Another interesting recipe in the Trattato della Cioccolata was specially created for priests, nuns, politicians and noblemen – this recipe contained expensive ingredients such as Indonesian curry, which could be replaced by equally costly musk, amber and white Egyptian roses. 

Nobody was spared from this delectable treat – since chocolate is a high-energy food, it was also served on board the Order's ships and galleys – even galley slaves charged with rowing were fed chocolate. 

A Noble Sweet Tooth 

Grand Master Perellos was noted to be especially fond of chocolate, he would regularly request the presence of noble Maltese women for chocolate-drinking gossip-fuelled morning sessions  – undoubtedly to learn of their husbands' businesses and affairs. 

Perellos had such a raging sweet tooth, that he commissioned a set of locally manufactured serving pots specifically created for storing drinking chocolate.

Another Grand Master renowned for being fond of this prized delicacy was Hompesch, who hired local chocolatier, Paolo Trapani, as part of his culinary entourage. Grand Master de Rohan also employed a full-time chocolatier at the palace who regularly assembled a range of indulgent treats for him and his visitors.

A Town For Chocolatiers 

Hamrun was one of the localities where chocolate left its imprint heavily. The town had a high concentration of confectioners and chocolatiers, particularly in the tas-Samra area. it's also documented that several warehouses in Hamrun were used to store cocoa beans at the time.

Maltese Chocolate Recipe Books 

Trattato della Cioccolata wasn't the only local publication dealing with chocolate. Local expert confectioner Michele Mercieca authored the first ever recorded Maltese recipe book in 1748 titled Libro de Secreti, in which he detailed the recipes for both chocolate mousse and chocolate ice cream – both of which were extremely popular at the time.

Cocoa beans were used in a wide range of local recipes, including cold drinks, sorbets, cakes and granitas. 

A Precious Treat

Chocolate was recognised as a luxurious treat and was regularly offered to visitors or those who performed heroic acts. Such instances were recorded regularly, with Grand Master Pinto often being cited as one who presented chocolate as compensation. One such example is an undercover team that infiltrated a network of flour smugglers.

By the late 1700s chocolate wrapping paper started being printed in Malta, showing that chocolate was also consumed as a solid block.

Known for their love of opulence, Inquisitors had their supply of chocolate-making paraphernalia, among which were whisks and copper pots used to craft drinking chocolate and coffee. These instruments weren't the only chocolate-related devices found at the Inquisitor's palace, as this indulgent bean also surfaced in numerous trial documents. 

chocolate malta curia inquisitor

Photo: Daniel Cilia, courtesy of the Archbishop's Curia, painting at the refectory in the Archbishop's Curia, Floriana, via Times of Malta

Lent Sacrifices 

Giving up chocolate during Lent is one of the most popular sacrifices nowadays, however, it was not always so. Catholics were freely allowed to eat chocolate during Lent back in the day, as only meat and its derivatives were forbidden during this time. A debate took place within the Catholic Church in the 18th century, as to whether chocolates and sweets should be eaten during Lent. During this time, Cospicua-based doctor Giuseppe Demarco published a study titled 'About The Use and Abuse of Chocolate in Medicine and Morality', in which he stated that chocolate and sugar can both be consumed during Lent, as they're derived from vegetables. 

All of this changed in the late 19th century when sugar was considered a fast-breaker. This change came about when sweets started to be seen as a treat which symbolised enjoyment and luxury during a time of absence. 

Locally-Made Chocolate

During the late 20th century, many foreign products were prohibited from entering the local market. Maltese manufacturers began producing a line of chocolate called Desserta – with flavours ranging from lemon to peppermint and white chocolate.

Craving to learn more? Visit Yellow's Culture section 

About Chiara Micallef

Chiara is a content writer with a love for delicious food, beautiful art, music, travel and bizarre history facts. 

She enjoys nothing more than reading, trying out new dishes and petting cats.