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With a sprinkling of new Michelin stars and a thriving farm-and-sea-to-plate food scene, Malta’s rapidly becoming the gourmet getaway of the Med discovers Amanda Statham.
This small island - it’s just 17 miles long and nine miles wide - lies south of Sicily in the middle of the Med and is punching above its weight in terms culture, cool hotels and first class restaurants.
My base in capital Valletta was restored 17th Century palazzo Domus Zamitello, a Baroque boutique hotel of dreams, with 21 pretty rooms filled with white-washed antique furniture and enormous beds, a spectacular glass-roofed atrium and hidden roof terrace overlooking Valletta’s open-air concert theatre, Pjazza Teatru Rjal.
ION the Harbour (as in eye on, geddit?) is a scenic rooftop restaurant set above lux-urious Iniala hotel and one of five restaurants on the island to recently bag a Michel-in star. The city and harbour views alone are worth a gong, but it’s chef Alex Dilling (formerly at The Greenhouse in London), who took things supernova food-wise dur-ing his 100-day residency and secured the coveted Michelin award. Highlights of my seven-course feast included a delicate dish of marinated shrimp, caviar, ginger and creme cru, each tiny scoop bursting with flavour and a sublime araguani chocolate dessert topped with caramel-dipped sourdough.
Perching by a barrel table at Valetta’s oldest wine bar, Trabuxu, I tucked into cured meats, cheeses and a glass of rich marnisi from the island’s Marsovin Winery, while at legendary Caffe Cordina I indulged in a pastizz (think Maltese Cornish pasty) and people-watching al fresco. Lunch at Roots restaurant in Marsaxlokk, a fishing village famous for its fresh catch and colourful boats, was memorable. Delicious homemade bread with kunserva, a traditional Maltese tomato paste, then locally-caught lampuka cooked to perfection; think crisp, salty skin and soft, flakey flesh, accompanied by small roast potatoes and a glass of light, citrusy local plonk Ulysses Chenin Blanc.
Highlight was Diar Il-Bneit, a rustic bistro in Dingli on the island’s west coast where islanders flock for seasonal, traditional Maltese fare. Fried rabbit in garlic and white wine is a speciality, but fond memories of my pet rabbit saw me ordering snails fol-lowed by mackerel. The escargot arrived in an exquisite tomato broth with hints of rosemary and cinna-mon, so good I requested more bread to mop up the sauce. Two large, whole macke-rel then appeared, smothered in a tomato and vegetable sauce (the veg is grown a stone’s throw from the restaurant) with black olives on the side. The oily fish’s strong, salty flavour combined beautifully with the sauce and I tried but failed to polish off the immense serving.
St John’s Co-Cathedral is dazzlingly opulent, think vaulted ceilings, floor-to-ceiling gold leaf-clad pillars, marble-inlaid tombstones and incredible art work, including two dramatic Caravaggio’s in the Oratory (the only ones he painted outside Italy). Venus statues discovered in island temples dating back more than 5000 years can be found in the National Museum of Archaeology, and don’t miss the noon salute from the battery of cannons overlooking Grand Harbour in Upper Barrakka Gardens. Outside of Valletta, I enjoyed St Peter’s Pool, a natural sea pool famed for its tur-quoise water and cliff-jumpers.
Trainers, Valetta has lots of steps and cobbles, and a swimming costume as Malta’s measurements mean you’re never more than 15 minutes from the sea! Leave space to take home gourmets goodies like olives and tomato paste from Diar Il-Bneit’s deli.
Strolling around the ancient city of Mdina feeling like an extra from Game of Thrones (some of which was filmed there!) then enjoying a glass of wine on the ter-race of the Xara Palace hotel built into the city’s ramparts.
Take time off sightseeing and buy a day pass to the legendary five-star Phoenicia Hotel (Queen Elizabeth II’s fave), which includes lunch and access to its beautiful infinity pool with incredible city views.
Rooms at Domus Zamittello from €149pn (£119). Ryanair flies to Malta from London Stansted from £34 return.