Maltese bread or as it is more commonly known, il-ħobża Maltija, is a staple of our diet. No family can start and finish off a meal without a piece of fresh local bread. We treasure it and of course, we firmly believe it is the best bread in the world. And yet, very few know and appreciate the work, the time and the dedication required every day to make sure we can enjoy il-ħobża Maltija. For less than one Euro, we are offered the privilege to buy and hold in our hands a unique piece of craftsmanship. A heritage passed over from one generation to another which notwithstanding the stiff competition it faces on the market continues remains widely consumed and sought after by the local market.
Vida recently met, Nenu Debono, owner and chief executive officer of Maypole, who shared with us what attracted him to the industry, the history of bread making in Malta and how the profession of bread making has changed over the years.
The young son of a third-generation baker, Nenu always knew and dreamt to follow in his family’s footsteps. His fascination, enthusiasm and passion for bread making paid off with a successful business comprising in a chain of shops spread all over the island, with future prospects of expanding even abroad.
Malta’s traditional bread has always been an essential part of the story of our island and ever since the Knights of St John, il-ħobża Maltija was always an important part of our cuisine. Nenu tells us that in the old days bread making in Malta was a very hard craftsmanship and the baker did this trade out of love rather than as a mere means of living.
The kneading of bread was done from the baker in what is called the żinġla, then with the help of horses in is-sinja. Years after, a petroleum motor with a wooden machinery was introduced to the market which eventually was also replaced by electricity. Nowadays the technology, the machinery and better hygiene made the production of bread better and more consistent resulting in better quality product.
The recipe of il-ħobża Maltija, which goes back hundreds of years, is not a secret at all and it is one of the simplest ever. It consists of a generous amount of water, flour, salt, yeast and the most important ingredient of whom many are unaware of – it-tinsila – part of the mixture which is preserved and added into every new mixture. Nenu compares the creation of the il-ħobża Maltija with a baby in the womb of its mother, explaining that like a baby needs time to develop in the uterus, the dough of the bread needs its time in order for it to be done in the proper way.
Surprisingly, the ftira, that was recently proposed to UNESCO to be declared as a cultural heritage, most likely originated when it was used as a means of testing. Nenu explained that the ftira was originally a small piece of dough from the Maltese bread used to check the oven’s heat before the intended ħobż Malti would be baked. “Personally, the news that the ftira might be given this honour was like winning a big lottery. My dream is finally coming true because our hard work and product given to us by our great grandparents, will finally be appreciated and nonetheless it will give our business the respect it deserves,” says the now grandfather of eleven.
Nenu travelled and participated in various international bread fares and through these experiences he confirmed his belief that our traditional bread is very high quality and can be a source of competition to foreign bread. It gives him pride to know that our Maltese traditional bread is so unique. In dismay, he exclaimed that the bakers in Malta are not respected enough and that people do not appreciate the time and dedication it takes to make the product.
When asked why there is a lack in people willing to work in this industry Nenu, listed a number of factors that effected this tradesman ship. “Due to changes in subsidies after we joined the European Union, a lot of traditional bakers closed down their bakeries,” he stated.
Other factors include high sanitary standards and hard working hours that undermined the bakers’ trade to the extent that by time it became unattractive to pursue for the new generations and therefore there was no continuation.
Back in the seventies the baker’s did not demand a pay increase but rather an opening of school for bakers. In the past this tradition was passed from one generation to another but nowadays the new generations would rather continue with their studies and seek other
professions that do not include craftsmanship.
Nenu said that he survived in this business due to his perseverance and many sacrifices throughout his journey where all of his family members and himself worked all week round. He recalls how his wife worked with him throughout their six pregnancies and would only stop for a few days after birth before she returned to work at the bakery. Further to our discussion, he also explained that if all local traditional bakers upgraded their machinery, it would been unsustainable given our limited market.
© 2019 – VIDA Magazine