Monday, 7 December 2015

Olive oil in the Maltese islands

From amber yellow to emerald green, olive oil comes in many shades and hues. Sometimes known as ‘liquid gold’, it has been a staple in our diets for time immemorial – around 400 generations, to be exact.

The History

Indigenous to the Mediterranean region, the olive tree has played a crucial role in our diets and nourishment for around 10,000 years. It is believed, in fact, that we've picked olives from trees since the early Neolithic period, and that we started extracting this fruit’s oil some 8,000 years ago. Everyone from the Grecians to the Israelites to the Romans and the Minoans cultivated and consumed olives, and all of these milked them for their delicious and wholesome juices.

This age old tradition that pre-dates written history has survived the test of time, and nowadays, olive oil is a favourite among all the people of the world, be they Mediterranean or not. So much so, that the global production of olive oil is of over 3,200,000 tonnes per year; and it is assumed that close to 100 per cent of that is consumed each year as well.

Fun Facts About Olive Oil
  • Olive oil’s renowned health properties and aromas are due to their plant-based antioxidants called ‘polyphenols’. These are believed to be both anti-carcinogenic and anti-aging.
  • We all know that some red wines get better with age, but olive oil is a product best consumed as fresh as possible. For this reason, you should always check its harvest date.
  • It should be stored in cool, dark places with the lid firmly in place as light, heat and oxygen can destroy its chemical compound. In fact, the fridge is one of the best places to preserve its taste, colour and nutritive elements. It may solidify, but, once taken out, it will go back to being a liquid within a few minutes.
  • The notion that extra virgin olive oil (evoo) should never be heated or used for cooking is not supported by research. However one should not use EVOO for frying. During our EVOO experiences we examine this fact in more detail and discuss from where this myth originated.
  • While unfiltered olive oil may look less appetising – muddy, even – it is actually much tastier and much more nutritious than its filtered counterpart.
  • No two harvests are the same, so no two batches of olive oil can ever taste the same.
  • A certain degree of bitterness is required to ensure that the olive oil is genuine.
  • In tasting sessions, different people may taste the same olive oil differently; that is why the aroma is given more importance.
  • Proper, unfiltered olive oil contains natural fats, meaning it has a high-calorific value – but, don’t worry, they’re good fats!

Extra virgin olive oil can be easily coupled to other local ingredients

Merill & Olive Oil
Olive oil was one of the first products we discovered at Merill. This was no coincidence, however, as two of the first people we teamed up with were Charlie and Ray Vella, the hard-working farmers and owners of tan-Nixxiegha Olive Grove.

Over the years, we have made it our mission to support the farmers in our rural network, particularly those whose work is eco-friendly, thanks to the EU LEADER funded Project. This training consists of pest control and management, olive oil appreciation, and health and safety regulations when working around trees, among many others.

As part of our on-going work, we also support researchers who are rediscovering old Maltese varieties and studying their unique properties; and we help create awareness about the benefits of choosing local and unaltered food products. 

What We Offer

Should you wish to organise an Olive Oil Tasting session to find out what real, unfiltered olive oil tastes like, feel free to get in touch with us.

We have:

  • Professional Extra-Virgin Olive Oil Tasting – As one of newest ventures, this offers small groups the chance to sit down to a glorious olive oil tasting session that will challenge everything you think you know about the taste and smell of good olive oil.
  • Bottled Extra-Virgin Olive Oil - Bottled liquid goodness that’s of a guaranteed quality and origin.

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For more information on Merill or our Olive Oil Tasting sessions, why not drop us a line at or call us on +356 9944 3118? 

Monday, 6 July 2015

Agritourism policy and the environment

by Kristina Chetcuti

Building new agritourism structures is ‘blasphemy’

Ecotourism agency Merrill believes Mepa’s agritourism construction proposals would create eyesores in the countryside. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi
Ecotourism agency Merill believes Mepa’s agritourism construction proposals would create eyesores in the countryside. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi
Jeanette Borg. Photo: Matthew MirabelliJeanette Borg. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli
Building new structures for accommodation in rural areas, as provided for by the new Outside Development Zones draft policy, is “blasphemy” according to a local pioneer in agritourism.
The draft policy was launched last month by Planning Parliamentary Secretary Michael Farrugia, who said it aimed to develop agritourism by allowing farmers, individually or in groups, to build up to 10 rooms for accommodation when their land exceeds 60 tumoli.
However, Jeanette Borg, managing director of Merill, the first ecotourism agency in Malta, believes this proposal would create an eyesore.
“We are completely against building more establishments on virgin land, agricultural land, or garigue.
“Building a utility room to serve as a store for agritourism purposes is one thing, building up to 10 rooms is another thing,” she said, pointing out that the rooms would need ancillary structures such as driveways and parking spaces, leading to entire complexes.
“Landscape mitigation is very hard to achieve, and they will be nothing but an eyesore,” she said.
Ms Borg believes the problem is that “we try to copy Sicily” – a scenario that “would not work” here.
Agritourism, she said, is a combination of experiences and not just accommodation in rural areas.
“Eco-friendly types of accommodation such as restored old town houses in the heart of Maltese villages also are agritourism,” she said.
Travelling distances are minimal in Malta so tourists are a maximum of half an hour away from the farm where the agri-experience is to take place, she said, stressing we should not aim to create a drastic shift from hotels.
“That would be shooting the local tourism industry in the foot.”
She questioned the need for rural accommodation when the island’s tourism marketing is geared towards Malta being “a sun and sea island”.
Landscape mitigation is very hard to achieve, and they will be nothing but an eyesore
“Agritourism is a niche market. We won’t be inundated with large quantities of high-paying tourists overnight: do we ever see promotion of Malta’s rural areas?”
A case in point, she said, was Gozo, where most of the farmhouses available for tourists remain vacant during the shoulder months.
The marriage of agriculture and tourism, she said, is one of the few ways that our farmland can preserve its character.
“Unless an economic value is given to agricultural land, we will continue having farmers who forfeit their land to build more since property is still generating money. This is dangerous.”
Ms Borg praised the draft policy for “its good intentions” and being “a good attempt at allowing investment to take place in rural areas that was not possible in the past”, such as the establishment of farm shops.
It is a welcome option because it will enable locals and tourists to buy fresh produce directly from the farmers, she said.
However, she pointed out it is still practically impossible to obtain permits to process local food in small-scale plants and the Department of Public Health is still “imposing non-practical requirements” for genuine producers.
“This red tape is leading to apathy in the Maltese food delicacies industry – no wonder delicacy shops are opening up selling items from all over the world, except Malta.”
She hopes “loopholes and bureaucratic webs” will be addressed, citing farmers who have been denied permission to restore derelict buildings or build an underground reservoir.
“We all know how many huge complexes or residential areas have been granted permits on virgin land.”
Project processes ought to be centralised in one institution, she recommended, as currently projects need endorsement of the Agriculture and Public Health departments and at times even the Malta Tourism Authority.
“By the time one gets the seal of approval for a proposed, EU-funded project from the three bodies, the call for funding would have closed.”

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Monday, 11 May 2015

Viticulturists within the Merill Rural Network

Much like our forefathers believed that the stars controlled their destiny, we now know that climate and geographical regions affect the chemical composition of grapes and, in turn, of wine. The study of this science, and some might even say nature’s art, is called viticulture, and the Merill Rural Network is proud to be helping out those furthering Malta’s sector in this sphere.

Grapes are an incredibly versatile berry: They can be eaten fresh, add a burst of zingy sweetness to dishes as raisins or sultanas, and even make the anti-oxidising drink that is grape juice. But for all its worth, their best loved and most influential use remains their ability to ferment and create one of the world’s oldest alcoholic beverages... Wine.

At Merill, we champion tradition, crafts from an age that is fast disappearing, and the use of long-established practices when it comes to agriculture, but we also understand that science and new knowledge are there to help us build a more sustainable and efficacious system. And that’s where our viticulturists come in.

Meet Carmel & Paul Cortis, brothers by blood and in the field

Working the land is a backbreaking job that, more often than not, cements the bond that ties father to son, mother to daughter, and sibling to sibling. Carmel and Paul Cortis, are brothers in and out of the field, but their mutual love for viticulture has led them to develop a requited fondness that is evident in their work.

Chances are, you’ve already laid your eyes on one of the patches of land that the Cortis brothers manicure on a weekly basis. Perched just beneath the imposing, fortified city of Mdina lies their vineyard; a beautiful medley of colourful vines that contrast exceptionally well with the straw-coloured walls of the Medieval Silent City.

It’s hard to believe that this landscape was once devoid of life, and that Carmel and Paul had to reintroduce soil and plant vines when they first took up farming. They’ve come a long way since then and, through heavy investment in machinery and new technology, hard work, and pure determination, they are now the proud carers of a plantation of grapevines that bears fruit in the summer and provides greenery throughout the rest of the year.

Carmel and Paul are part-time farmers, but most of their free time is spent tending the field, along with their wives and children, who provide a helping hand whenever needed but particularly during harvesting season, when the workload is at its peak.

Meet Patrick Gauci, a man whose pastime enriches the landscape

While not many fathers expect their children to follow in their footsteps, Patrick is one who can proudly say that his influence on his son gained Malta another, much-needed agriculture graduate. At 55 years old, however, Patrick still spends a lot of his time farming, and is a person whose pastime is ‘rewarding’, ‘relaxing’ and beneficial to Malta’s grape-growing industry and the land he sows.

Situated at the foot of the ridge where Gnien l-Gharusa tal-Mosta lies, the Ghajn Rihana Vineyards yield grapes that go on to produce some of the Island’s most celebrated wines. All this, Patrick does in his free time, but he has been doing so since he was a child, and is grateful to have found someone who will take care of his land with him and also once he can no longer do it himself.

With a lifetime’s worth of experience in farming and viticulture, Patrick has a wealth of intellectual and practical knowledge in the field that is now fostered and bolstered by the EU-funded LEADER programme, secured through the Merill Rural Network.

To stay up-to-date with Carmel & Paul’s Cortis Vineyard, you can follow them on Facebook by clicking here; for Patrick’s Ghajn Rihana Vineyards, you can click here. For more information on Merill you can contact us by e-mail at or by calling us on +356 9944 3118.

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Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Wine & Cheese Tasting Experience

Wine is an icon that has transgressed time and tastes. So much so, that 10,000 years after the first batch of this alcoholic beverage concocted from fermented grapes was made, wine still holds an important place in our everyday lives.

Benjamin Franklin once said that ‘wine is constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy’. 

We agree, but we also believe that wine is more than just a simple beverage that accompanies your dinner, or which you sip as you chat to friends. After all, each bottle of wine holds within it traditions, customs, scents and tastes that have been 10,000 years in the making.

Taste Local

As many of you probably know, we are firm believers in the produce yielded and products created locally, and there are many reasons for this. 

To begin with, these are zero-milage products, meaning that their carbon footprint is much, much smaller than something imported from abroad. 

Buying and promoting these products also helps safeguard customs that have been in use for generations, and helps promote the growth of our local agricultural landscape and economy. 

But, more than that, we truly believe that local produce, aided by the kiss of our generous sun, and lovingly grown by the wonderful farmers that have dedicated their life to this practice, results in superior products that taste divine.

That’s why our Wine & Cheese Tasting sessions only make use of locally-produced wine, grown in vineyards scattered all around the Islands that benefit from our fertile soil and optimum weather conditions. And, to complement the wines and take your taste-buds on a journey through Malta’s culinary traditions, we add creamy and soft sheep’s milk gbejniet (traditional Maltese cheeselets) to our offering.

Wine & Cheese Tasting Sessions by Merill

Our Wine & Cheese Tasting Sessions take place at one of our exclusive venues, which set the stage for an idyllic afternoon in the company of expertly-picked, boutique wines and fresh gbejniet created from local milk by local producers using recipes that date back tens, and even hundreds, of years.

As we take you through the different wines and explore their fragrance, palate and origin, we also guide you through the deep and intricate taste of our humble gbejna, as well as the history and legacy of the venues we are in, which include Tas-Salut Orchard or the Tan-Nixxiegha Olive Grove.

As such, these Wine & Cheese Tasting Sessions are great for both locals and visitors, and whether it’s a birthday party, get together, team-building session, or just an afternoon spent getting to know the local viticulture, we will always welcome you with open arms.

Other Details:

As we’re sure you know, wine tasting sessions are all about getting to know the wines at hand, so we’ll make sure you won’t get drunk while in our care, and we promise to keep you safe.

These tasting sessions cannot substitute lunch or dinner in their entirety, so they make for a perfect pre-dinner activity.

They are available all year round, no matter the weather!

They’re perfect for an afternoon gathering that allows you to taste some delicious Maltese wines with a backdrop of the pink and yellow sky as the sun sets. It also means that, if you come in the hot summer months, you’ll avoid the stifling heat of the early afternoon.

Groups can secure the exclusive farm venue – drop us a line for more information about this.

Visitors will try three different kinds of wine and two types of gbejniet – making these sessions ideal for vegetarians too.

For more information on Merill or our Wine & Cheese Tasting sessions, why not drop us a line at or call us on +356 9944 3118? 

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Friday, 10 April 2015

Antoine's Weaving Workshop

 Weaving is one of the world’s oldest trades, and its simple process of interlocking two distinct sets of yarn or thread at right angles to create a piece of cloth is so perfect, it hasn’t changed in over 9,000 years.

Around the world, cave paintings, Egyptian hieroglyphs, and scraps of fabric preserved in time, have revealed that the weaving of yarn and thread doesn’t only predate civilisation, it even predates history – with many historians and archeologists believing the craft to be over 12,000 years old.

Here in Malta, the first known piece of weaving discovered dates back to around 800BC, to the time when the Phoenicians ruled the island. As with many other crafts, we embraced it and, 3,000 years on, we still produce fabrics and cloths using this ancient method.

Having said that, the manual process has all but become extinct thanks to the industrial revolution that literally mechanised the exact same action that has been used for millennia. Now, Antoine tan-Newl and Merill have joined forces to use the technology that threatened to destroy the local, manual craft to help safeguard it.

Who is Antoine?

Antoine Vella, known affectionately as Antoine tan-Newl, first began learning the art of weaving when he was just eight years old, and it took him over eight years of constant practice to get his skills up to scratch. “I’ve always been absolutely fascinated by the different kinds of weavings that exist, and it was my dream to learn how to create a piece of fabric myself,” he tells us.

Today, Antoine runs his own weaving workshop, which hand-produces carpets, blankets, cushion covers, and an array of paraphernalia for the dining room and the bedroom. “In the past, however, almost all fabrics and clothes were created by hand using this process, including the ghonnella, flannel shirts, and even underwear,” he adds.

How is Merill involved?

Through the Merill Rural Network, Antoine has been entrusted with a spinner (a machine that spins wool into yarn; a job traditionally done by hand by unmarried women who were considered to be past their eligibility, hence the term ‘spinster’) and a carder (a toothed machine that opens and cleans wool), which were purchased through funds granted by the EU’s LEADER programme.

These two pieces of equipment will give Antoine the opportunity to mechanise two of the most time-consuming parts of the process of weaving, allowing him to create a larger volume of work. On top of that, the spinner will make use of Maltese-produced wool that is often discarded or burnt; leading to a product that is 100 per cent local and that is still hand-made.
Antoine has also received training in a wide range of topics, including health and safety measures to be taken when using these two machines and when welcoming visitors to his workshops, as well as in risk management. “Learning makes life interesting, and I was stunned by the amount of new developments – and even older ones – which we were exposed to,” explains Antoine. “It’s definitely bettered our process and business!”

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A visit to Antoine tan-Newl’s workshop can be organised upon request. For more information you can send us an e-mail at or call us on 99443118.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Tan-Nixxiegha Olive Grove

At the limits of Mgarr lies a path that is lined with the most mouth-watering of scents. Take it, and you will soon discover the majestic-yet-subdued beauty of the Tan-Nixxiegha Olive Grove, a haven for indigenous and endemic flora that has found a home amid the rugged landscape.

It is hard to believe that, not very long ago, the patch of land that makes up the Tan-Nixxiegha Olive Grove was derelict and in ruins. The rubble walls had been damaged for years, leaving much of the soil to the mercy of the elements, the flora had been replaced by weeds, and it all just seemed like another stretch of uncultivated land.

What Happened Then?

Thankfully, two amazing farmers called Charlie and Ray bought this piece of agricultural land; and, through their hard work and determination, they turned it into their very own Garden of Eden.  They restored the rubble walls and returned the grove to its terraced past, they planted windbreak trees to provide shelter to the then newly-planted olive trees, and allowed rosemary bushes and endemic plants to grow, thus providing a safe haven to many species of birds and insects.

Since then, the olive trees have grown strong and now yield olives that make some of the tastiest olive oil in the country. Tan-Nixxiegha has also been opened to be public, allowing many to catch their first glance of the Widnet il-Bahar (Malta’s national plant), to smell the scent of wild thyme and rosemary, and to be left breathless by the stunning views of the countryside that surround it.

How is Merill Involved?

Tan-Nixxiegha was one of the first places that became part of the Merill Rural Network and, since 2011, we have brought many local and foreign groups to this ‘beautiful’ and ‘friendly’ grove – as the comments and mentions on TripAdvisor put it.

Over the years, the range of things you can do at Tan-Nixxiegha has doubled, and we now offer:

Tasting Sessions – where you can sample the deliciousness of fresh Maltese produce, including extra virgin olive oil, wine and jams.

A Nature Tour – where you can see and smell the countryside like never before and become familiar with the many endemic types of flora that add to the natural beauty of the grove.

Sales of Local Produce – which is just what it says on the tin! Visit us to buy fresh and delicious produce, including estate-fresh, cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil produced by Charlie and Ray themselves. Limited quantities are available, but they are incredibly high in quality.

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Would you like to organise a scrumptious tasting session or a nature tour at the Tan-Nixxiegha Olive Grove? Then drop us a line at or call us on +356 9944 3118.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Tas-Salut Orchard

Nestled in the hills of Mgarr overlooking the splendid Gnejna Bay is a group of fertile, terraced fields renowned for their delicious produce. They are closely linked to the people who have worked them for generations – the same folk whose descendants are now one of Malta’s last farming families.

The Tas-Salut orchard is tucked away behind a group of large boulders; boulders that have safeguarded the arable land from harsh weather conditions, and that provided a safe haven to the land’s proprietors during the tumultuous years of World War II.

What Happened Then?

A lot has changed since those days, but Benny, one of the children who sought refuge there, is now the proud patriarch of one of Malta’s last families to live off the land. 

This has truly shaped Tas-Salut and, while many orchards abroad tend to yield one type of produce, this orchard has many pockets of land dedicated to growing oranges, apples, figs, pomegranates, sweet potatoes, marrows and a variety of herbs, among others things. It’s a real feat, especially considering the size of the orchard.

Benny is also one of the many local farmers who avoid the use of chemical pesticides when possible. For example, to grow his strawberries, Benny makes use of a method called ‘biological control’, which means using living organisms to naturally kill insects that are harmful to cultivated plants. This, however, cannot be carried out on all crops because certain pests that cannot be ‘removed’ by biological means.

How Is Merill Involved?

Benny has kindly opened the gates to his orchard to visitors, and Merill now provides tourists, locals and corporate groups with a variety of experiences at this wonderful venue, with breathtaking views that stretch all the way to Gozo’s majestic cliffs. There is so much to enjoy here, including:

Professional and Basic Olive Oil Tasting – where you can sample the dark-green goodness of cold-pressed, Maltese olive oil.

Wine & Maltese Cheeselet Tasting – where the  beautiful notes of Maltese wine are enhanced by the tangy taste of fresh, plain or peppered Maltese ġbejniet, made from 100 per cent sheep’s milk.

Orchard Tours – where the history of the area and the orchard comes to life amid sweet-smelling strawberry plants, vines made heavy by abundant clusters of grapes and other fruits, and a sense of the traditional that has long been thought extinct.

How Are Merill and Benny working together?

They say that if you give a man a fish, he will eat for a day; but if you teach a man how to fish, he will never go hungry.

At Merill, we know that the farmers in our network are more than able to feed themselves and work the land they so dutifully look after. Yet agriculture is a field – no pun intended – that’s changing at an unprecedented rate; probably more so than it did during the Industrial Revolution.

That’s why, since March 2014, Benny, together with a few other members of the Merill Rural Network (located in the northwestern region of Malta), has been participating in a project funded by the EU programme LEADER, whereby investment has been made in marketing and training for the members and their families, and in the acquisition of equipment to improve farm and workshop visits. 

Through this project, Tas-­Salut’s owners have been provided with equipment and training in firefighting and risk-management practices, among others. Benny and his wife Tessie have also had training in hosting, ecotourism, food handling, first aid, and many other related topics. On top of this, during an educational trip to Sicily with various other members of the Merill network, they got to experience the similarities and differences between foreign and local farming.

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Would you like to  organise a scrumptious tasting session? Then drop us a line at or call us on 2141 1388.

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