Sunday, 28 August 2011

Prickly Pears in Malta are just ripe!

Prickly Pears

The prickly pear reigns supreme in Malta’s landscape. At this time of year, its fruits ripen and are harvested by hardy folk as a food for free. In the more rural villages, you’ll find veggie vans and shops selling the pears, spines removed thank goodness. Often, my village neighbours arrive at my door with a plastic bowl full of the fruit, peeled to reveal their jewel-like, ruby-coloured succulent flesh. I accept graciously, though I have never really got to grips with munching or spitting out the abundant seeds. Apparently, there are seedless varieties around, just not in the wild of course!
Although not a native of the Malta, or the Mediterreanean (its origins lie in South America), the Opuntia ficus-indica (Indian fig) certainly thrives here. Were it not for farmers lopping off bits from time to time it might well take over. Farmers of old would use it as a boundary between fields; it’s definitely a good deterrent to intruders or straying livestock and is cheaper for villa owners to install than a security system!
The fruit can be red, deep wine-red, green or yellow-orange and is perfectly edible (fussiness over seeds aside). It is sweet and moist with a flavour similar to sub-tropical fruits like watermelon, honeydew melon, strawberries and figs. And is a fraction of the price of these, or free if you pick your own.
I would leave picking, and removing the peel to the experts though; rural folk with hands like leather, who wield a knife skilfully and are impervious to the nasty spines. On my first trip to Malta 20 years ago, I was offered a half-heartedly peeled prickly pear and ended up, very uncomfortably, with very fine, hair-like spines swelling my lips for days.
Prickly Pear culinary delights
Malta doesn’t really make much use of its abundant prickly pear supply. Our Sicilian neighbours treat it far more adventurously making candies, granita (slushy ices), ice creams, and jellies from it, as well as serving it up as dessert in restaurants ranging from casual trattorie to those listed in the esteemed Michelin Guides.
The prickly pear is however on the increase on menus in Malta as we are beginning to see chefs value this humble, poor-man’s food. Its presence on the menu can add local flair to what is often a bland list of internationally available desserts. The prickly pear is also versatile, and equally at home in savoury dishes.
Most people I know simply eat it unadulterated; or they juice it. It can make a refreshing drink, and it certainly makes an interesting, pink-coloured Maltese liqueur under the Zeppi brand, called Bajtra. You’ll find it in most grocers and at the airport, alongside Maltese honey and biscuits, being sold as a souvenir.
Health benefits
It has an impressive list of healthly properties: it is rich in anti-oxidents and contains a good dose of vitamin C. Some say its juice can help cure a hangover. The ficus indica is being looked at closely for its health benefits:a Maltese company, along with a French partner, has been researching prickly pear properties since 1996. It has has found its extracts can help alleviate symptoms of extreme fatigue experienced after performing strenuous exercise – we’re talking about scuba divers and racing drivers here.
So, it seems that the humble prickly pear, much maligned and often viewed as an invasive weed, has a lot to offer Malta after all.

Article written by Elizabeth Ayling and published on Malta Inside Out

Reviving Traditions - Weaving in Malta

Weaving machine

I chose my favourite colour in stock!

lovely shades of thread

The artisan weaving

A unique work of art!

Learning about hand made parts of the weaving machine

Cotton bags 

The origin and development of woven cloth is closely tied to the history of mankind. People learned to weave thousands of years ago using natural grasses, leafstalks, palm leaves, and thin strips of wood.

Weaving is the process of making cloth, rugs, blankets, and other products by crossing two sets of threads over and under each other. Weavers use threads spun from natural fibres like cotton, silk, and wool. But thin, narrow strips of almost any flexible material can be woven.

It is firmly believed that the Phoenicians introduced weaving and dyeing skills in Malta and Gozo. Since classical times, the Maltese Islands have been renowned for the excellence of the local cloth. Roman senator Cicero in his report refers to quantities of Maltese cloth that had been stolen. He also states that Malta had "become a manufactory for weaving women's garments".

The cotton industry thrived up to the early 19th century before declining slowly by the end of the century. Because of the cotton plant, introduced to Malta by the Arabs, nearly every house had its loom, while girls were taught this trade at a very early age. Up to World War I, the Islands produced coarse and finer weaved cotton on traditional handlooms. Today, fabrics are produced by both hand spinning and mechanised means.

The woollen industry remained small, but Malta and Gozo today still produce small quantities of useful heavy knitted garments and rugs. A wide range of woollen and fabric garments and accessories including skirts, handbags, ties and wall tapestries are available. 

We realise that many locals have lost most of the knowledge about this ancient tradition and many don't know it still exists because of lack of awareness and education in this field. On the other hand tourist who come to Malta are offered an array of souvenirs, many of which are not 100% authentic.  To address these issues, Merill Eco Tours are organising tours and demonstrations to revive traditions and offer authentic hand made products to those who wish to own a unique work of art and support local artisans.

Feel free to visit our website:
Photos taken by Christian Borg

The Kingfisher in Malta

The Kingfisher at rest
This morning has been particularly exciting to one of our expert birders, Chris Cachia Zammit. He managed to capture this beautiful bird while resting. He told us that the Kingfisher is one of the few colourful birds that come to Malta. In spite it's colourful plumage, the bird is quite difficult to spot, but from time you get a glimpse of the bird flying. If your lucky, you might spot the Kingfisher fishing or resting on a pole. These birds migrate to Malta in August and some of them spend the winter time in the Maltese Islands. The scientific name for this species is Alcedo atthis and its Maltese name is Ghasfur ta’ San Martin.

For more information about bird-watching tours, visit our website or send us an email on

Malta - The land of plenty




Prickly Pears 

The farmer and myself

This morning Christian and I met a farmer who took us around his family run estate of 4.5 hectares. The farmer explained that before his family settled there, all the land had been abandoned and all the rubble walls and paths were derelict.  It took this family decades to turn this estate into fertile land, where crops grow all year round. Strawberries, cucumbers and garlic have been planted while the season of summer fruits such as melons and watermelons will soon be over.

While going through the fields, I asked the farmer about challenges they face and future prospects of such an enterprise. He explained that the prices offered for produce at the Pitkali market are often too low to cover costs of inputs and intensive labour. However since the Farmer's Market in Ta' Qali opened, they can sell the produce directly to consumers thus keeping prices reasonable. The Farmer's market is also challenging in itself. All his family are engaged in harvesting, grading and selling fresh produce, thus offering the very best every Tuesdays and Saturdays. One of the things we can all do to support local farmers is to buy their produce. Apart from producing fresh fruits and vegetables, they maintain the landscape and conserve agricultural biodiversity. 

As Merill Eco Tours we're doing our best to help farmers by promoting their produce and offering ecotourism opportunites. For more information about agri-tourism experiences, visit our website 

Monday, 15 August 2011

The Maltese Dog

The Maltese is a small breed of dog in the toy group. It descends from dogs originating in the Central Mediterranean Area. The breed name and origins are generally understood to derive from the Mediterranean island of Malta.

Maltese dogs are little all-white dogs that are very gentle-mannered and loving. They are lively, playful and are quite fearless in spite of their small size. Malties learn quickly and excel at obedience and tricks. They are highly affectionate, very devoted to their owner, and are wonderful companions that will happily take part in any activity as long as they are with their family.
A bold and beautiful canine, the Maltese has a silky, long white coat and has graceful movements. He is a natural born lapdog, but also greatly enjoys romping around and doesn’t mind getting dirty to the chagrin of his owners. Maltese are vivacious and lovely dogs, and throughout history have remained popular pets.

Maltese Adult Dog

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Sunday, 14 August 2011

Oh what a weekend in sunny Malta!

Storm Petrels [Photo by Chris Cachia Zammit]

Out with the boat [Photo by Christian Borg]

Band club playing in Mosta [Photo by Daniel Paul Jones]

Ready to be harvested [Photo by Christian Borg]

Summer is at its best! Sunny in the morning and cool in the evening, eight local village festas, grapes being harvested, and lovely beaches to enjoy...welcome to Malta. Some avid birdwatchers were busy capturing Storm Petrels in flight while farmers are proudly harvesting the fruits they worked for throughout the year. The sea was perfect for a swim. Hundreds of boats enjoyed the calm sea while thousands of bathers hit the shores to cool off. Another great weekend has come to an end and tomorrow Malta celebrates the Feast of The Assumption of Our Lady...a religious feast with strong cultural and traditional roots to the Maltese people.

Friday, 12 August 2011

The Common Kestrel

Common Kestrel

Common Kestrels are usually spotted in Malta during the migration season. Mostly frequent during mid-august till mid-october, and peak between mid-September till the beginning of October. These birds normally prey and feed on insects, small mammals and birds. Their mode of hunting is interesting. They hover over an area where the prey is located, they concentrate on the prey and dive in to capture the less fortunate creature. This practice can be observed even here in Malta during migration. It's common for such a species to spend time in areas such as Buskett, where they can hunt and recover their strength to continue the migration towards Africa.  

Photo and write up by Christopher Cachia Zammit

For more information about Bird Watching Tours, visit our website or email us on

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