Malta is situated in the middle of the world, or what would have seemed like the middle of the world, if you were a European or Ottoman or North African living sometime between the Bronze Age and about 1950. Hence it has been strategically important, and has attracted the attention of every major seafaring nation in the West for many centuries. and hence its cultural influences have been many. Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Fatimids, Ottomans, Sicilians, French, British—they've all been here, or tried to be. In the middle ages, Malta became the home of the Knights Hospitaller, whose Order had been founded in 1085 in Jerusalem as a religious community tending to the sick. They later became a hugely wealthy and powerful military order. (Which just goes to show that a career in health care was a good bet, even then.) The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V ceded Malta to the Knights in 1530, after which they were known as the Knights of Malta. Part of Malta's annual feudal tax included, yes, a Maltese falcon—presumably a real live one, unlike its namesake of book and movie fame.
In 1565, Malta was the subject of a fierce protracted siege by the Ottomans, which resulted in a rare defeat for the Sublime Porte. Malta was also the site of a lengthy tug-of-war (in a more literal sense than usual) between the Allied and Axis powers in WWII. Part of the British Empire since the Treaty of Paris in 1814, Malta gained independence in 1964 and has been blissfully quiet since then, except perhaps for the influx of Britishers in search of vacation homes.
Because of the frequent cross-traffic, over 50% of the vocabulary of the Maltese language is borrowed, mostly from Romance languages, although the language itself is Semitic, like Arabic.
Malta was the first European country we encountered on our random tour around the world. That makes it the first country whose cuisine is heavily wheat-based: baked goods, especially pastries, are very popular, and crusty bread is the starch basis of its meals. Luckily, there are many tasty fish- and meat-based main dishes to choose from, and lots of interesting soups. Tonight we are having a vegetable soup with an interesting twist: a melted cheese and a poached egg, right in the soup. The cheese is gbejna, a small round sheep or goat milk cheese, which may or may not be aged, and may or may not have other flavors added, such as black pepper. Fresh mozzarella or a mild feta are easily available alternatives.
This soup is called Widow's Soup, apparently because it's nourishing but made from cheap ingredients a poor widow could afford. (I reassured Henry that the name of the dish was a result, not a cause. I think he believed me, but I did notice he surreptitiously fed a spoonful to the dog before trying it.) Widow or otherwise, it's deliciously fresh and satisfying.
Soppa Tal-Armla (Widow's Soup)
(Adapted from Gasto's Pastizzi, although the same recipe appears in many places online)
In a large soup pot, sauté in butter until soft:
4 cloves garlic, crushed
1 medium onion, chopped
Add to pot and stir to mix:
2 potatoes, diced (peel if you like. I prefer skin-on. All those good vitamins!)
2 carrots, diced
1 kohlrabi, peeled and diced (I actually used celery root instead, for more flavor)
1 cup broad beans (fava beans) or large lima beans, cooked
1 small cauliflower, broken into bite-sized pieces
2 celery ribs, sliced
Add to pot:
Chicken or vegetable stock to cover (about 2 quarts)
2 T tomato paste (mix into stock before adding to soup; it's much easier)
Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 15 or 20 minutes, until vegetables are just cooked. Add:
1 c green peas
1/2 c parsley, chopped
Now here's the tricky part. Make sure there is plenty of liquid in the pot. Break gently into the simmering water:
1 egg for each serving
Cover and allow egg to poach to the consistency you like. Carefully remove each egg with a slotted spoon, and set one in each soup bowl. Increase heat so soup is very hot. Set next to egg in each bowl:
1 gbejna (Maltese cheese) each, or 1 lump of fresh mozzarella or mild feta
Ladle hot soup on top of the cheese, along with vegetables. Garnish with more parsley, and enjoy.