Friday, April 25, 2014

Spring in Valletta

It's a weird feeling, living in a foreign country long enough for weather patterns to become familiar. Not just knowing what's an extraordinarily hot or cold day. Knowing if this time last year was better or worst than the last, or the last, or the last. Knowing enough to declare a 'good spring' or a 'bad spring'.

This year we had a good winter and a bad spring: Few winter storms, warm sunny winter days, and cool sunny spring days.

Summer is taking its time coming and I'm not complaining. I like bad springs.

I get a little bored of the weather in Malta sometimes (yes, I hate me too). It's all sun, all day, every day, every month, every year. No preparing for snow storms or sharing in the national joy that are the first blooms of spring, the first buds on trees. There's nothing quite like the delirium that takes hold across Canada when there is good weather, especially after the snow melts and every Canadian city and suburb smells like one giant, delicious BBQ. There's such a sense of community about it. Here good weather is just the norm and we all take it for granted.

But! I'm headed to Edinburgh tonight where a proper blast of miserable weather awaits. And, instead of BBQs, I hear they deep fry pizza! A good substitute if I've ever heard one. Hip hip!

The happiest of weekends to you, whatever the weather.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Malta's Best New Restaurant: The Harbour Club

It's been awhile since I was excited enough about a restaurant to blog about it. And, let's be honest, sometimes when you find a good restaurant you want to keep it to yourself, lest it be overrun and you can no longer get a table. But I think The Harbour Club (opened in January 2014) is doing something so good in Valletta that I can't keep my mouth shut about it.

Designed by my favourite Maltese architect, Chris Briffa, The Harbour Club is one of those rare places that masterfully blends old and new, re-purposing an old fort across from Ta Liesse church into a unique dining experience.

The Harbour Club is a multifunctional, three tiered space with a beautiful bar, al fresco terrace, a bright dining room with views of the Grand Harbour, and a subterranean jazz bar. And Briffa's signature style bathrooms, of course (yes he has those).

It is at once warm and cool, as all my favourite spaces are. And you'll never believe what it looked like before!

It's not just the architecture here that's wonderful -- the food is worthy of note, too. We came here for afternoon drinks and fell so in love with its extensive list of Belgian beers and its house-smoked salmon that we immediately booked a space for dinner later that night.

...during which we ingested between us citrus ravioli with sage, 17 hour slow cooked lamb shanks and pureed potato with tumeric, roasted Maltese potatoes, grilled sea bream, grilled zucchini, steamed vegetables with fuq (local beans), and tripel Belgian beer and Italian Chianti. Oof.

The sign of a good meal in a digital age? There is no photographic evidence, because great food makes you forget about your camera (but never your phone).

For dinner we requested to sit in the subterranean jazz bar, which I assume from its shape is giving new life to a centuries old cistern.

We were completely alone down there - for the first and last time, I'm sure - except for a troop of attentive staff. Surrounded by rough, white walls and bathed in soft light, it was magic.

It is a joy to see more places like this opening in Malta, and Valletta in particular, where restauranteurs and designers are getting more intentional about the spaces and plates they create.

It won't come as a surprise to me when, in a decade or so, Malta becomes a bit of a culinary and design capital in the Mediterranean. The Harbour Club and Chris Briffa are leading the way.

Book your tables now, before you can't get one anymore (sorry not sorry).


WHERE: Barriera Wharf, Valletta, below Victoria Gate and across from Ta Liesse Church
(if you have to give directions to a cab driver, just say Ta Liesse Church)
HOW MUCH: A dinner for two with appetizers, mains, dessert and drinks was less than 100 euro.
WHEN: Dinner seems to start at 7 pm, and the terrace appears open on weekends for lunch and drinks. Since the restaurant just opened there are no set opening hours as of yet.
CONTACT: +356 7922 2332 or +356 2122 2332 or Facebook

Monday, April 14, 2014

Selinute: Where I sat in a Greek temple.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again, Sicily has the best Greek temples (and Roman mosaics) in the entire world. They are incredible, and this ancient Greek city may be the most impressive and surprising of them all. 

Selinute* is home to five Greek temples and an acropolis set against a dramatic landscape. It's a symphony of vistas: Golden columns perched among wildflowers and olive trees, tumbling down hills to meet the turquoise Mediterranean Sea. 

And best of all, it's all yours to walk through, stand on, and sit in.

It's hard to describe the feeling of taking small, slow steps into a temple and sitting on its floor, gingerly touching its columns, and being in it.

Full body chills, guys.

  • Not dog friendly -- or cynophobic friendly. There are some fairly aggressive stray dogs who call this archaeological site home, and don't like when other canines or humans invade their turf.
  • The columns of the temples are infested with bee hives! Luckily, at least the bees aren't aggressive.
  • Allow yourself at least half a day to see the whole thing. Pack a picnic and good shoes -- there's a lot of ground to cover.
  • There are very few interpretive signs, so it's best to bring your own literature.
  • There is a tourist train available to transport you from site to site, if mobility or time are of concern.
  • Entrance fee: 3 euro (under 25) and 6 euro (over 25).
  • Free parking available on site.
  • Free bathrooms located in the parking lot, by the gift shops.

*Can't figure out how to pronounce it? You can use the Greek name, Selinous, instead.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Planeta's Sumbuca di Sicilia Winery -- With Wieners.

On our second trip to La Planeta Foresteria we finally scheduled a vineyard tour of their Sambuca di Sicilia Winery, the family-run wine dynasty's oldest, perched just above Lago Arancio near Menfi.

Like, seemingly, everything in Sicily it was dog friendly enthusiastic. Our wieners were welcomed with open arms, and loved sniffing around the oak casks and beautiful grounds. 

We were led through the Ulmo vineyard on a private tour by an absolutely charming woman, whose name escapes me. She was so genuinely friendly and interesting to talk to that I ended up enjoying the non-tasting part of the tour far more than I thought I would.

If you know Sicilian wines you likely know about Planeta. But for the uninitiated, Planeta is a series of vineyards sprinkled throughout Sicily that has been making robust reds and buttery whites for generations. You can find their 13 wines internationally, but even here in Malta it's not easy to track them down.

A tour of the Sambuca di Sicilia winery starts with a walk through the grounds, cellars, and (depending on the season) the vineyards. In our case, with two curious chiweenies in tow, poking around the vats.

During the morning a fleet of staff were milling about the premises, preparing a suite of stunning dining rooms for private lunches and dinners. The smell of oak casks and roasting meats and nuts mingled in the air, teasing the pups.

Planeta's style, from the furnishing of its wineries and agriturismo, to its branding, promotions, and wine labels, is elegant, intentional, and impeccably Italian.


Next came our private tasting. You can chose the wines you taste (up to four are included in the tour). We selected the Maroccoli Syrah, their famous Chardonnay, the Santa Cecilia Nero D'Avola, and the La Segreata Bianco (Grecanico, Chardonnay, Viognier and Fiano). We were offered complimentary local Vastedda cheese to pair them with. It was divine.

It was also 11 am and I'm sure a civilized person would have discretely spit their wines out into the pail provided, as one does. But I love Planeta wines too much for that, and I was on vacation. Having a buzz on before noon, with a puppy on your lap, is practically obligatory. 

Our tour ended with a visit to the gift shop where, four glasses of wine later, I was all too ready to whip out my wallet and indulge. We picked up a case of wine and some of Planeta's excellent olive oils. And a wine box-turned-checker-board, complete with little cork pieces, that we did not need but is super cute. (Blaming the wine.)

In a flurry of shopping bags and cheek kisses and goodbyes I was overcharged 5 euros for my checker case. The staff at Planeta are so attentive, and honest, they sent it back to our hotel!

(Take that Sicilian stereotypes.)

La Planeta is named after the Planeta family, and their symbols are the sun and moon. I was admiring their collection of custom moon cycle art and our tour guide took notice. Upon leaving the vineyard I was gifted with a large moon cycle piece that now hangs framed in our living room, a permanent reminder of the beautiful design aesthetic of La Planeta, and the even more beautiful and generous people of Sicily.

Ciao, Planeta. We'll be back -- all four of us.