As tourism booms in Malta, international guests and their sophisticated palates have demanded finer dining. Drawing on the island’s rich past, Hammett’s Maċina Restaurant opened late in February this year to deliver a cleverly designed taste of history reflecting the island’s Mediterranean-semitic roots.
Maltese chef and restaurateur Chris Hammett talks passionately about the Maċina, a 16th-century limestone building that houses his new restaurant. The sheer bastion building was built by the Knights of Malta in 1554, and gets its name from ‘macchina’ used to hoist and fit ships’ masts. In the early days the machine was made of hardwood and mounted on the ramparts; it was replaced with a modernised steel structure by the British in 1864. ‘When my business partner and I looked inside the building we immediately decided we had to create a new restaurant here. The room was just too beautiful,’ says executive chef Chris Hammett.
Tourism is booming in Malta – partly due to the fact that the locals speak English but also because of the 300 days of glorious sunshine a year and the island’s rich cultural heritage.
‘All nationalities want to visit, and many are staying on to work’, says Chris. ‘We even have 28 different nationalities in our company, which is incredible.’
Chris explains that the food scene is also going through tremendous growth locally. ‘The number of restaurants in Malta has doubled in the last 10 years, so the diversity is growing all the time. Michelin don’t rate Maltese restaurants, and if you’d asked me 10 years ago if I think they should, I might have said that it may not be worth their while. Now, they would find many of high quality.’
Chris has won a string of awards for his time in various Maltese restaurants, notably the The Villa Brasserie in Saint Julian’s – historically one of Malta’s most respected establishments. While Chris’s company owned and operated The Villa successfully for a number of years, the venue was not his creation. His Maċina Restaurant however clearly represents a career pinnacle for the British-trained chef.
It opened with a lavish champagne and canapés event and has proved hugely successful. While Chris’s culinary background is well grounded in the fine French cooking that has won him 24 awards, Maċina Restaurant takes a more historic regional view, telling the story of the true diversity of Malta. Chris explains: ‘The food influences are many and varied yet fit together well. The flavours are derived from countries that are close or that have had a historic connection to Malta. Of course many traditional flavour pairings are respected and form a foundation of the menu. For example the Steamed Fillet of Sea Bass does feature citrus, but it is also lightly finished with additional clean fragrant elements like lemongrass, peppermint and lime.
‘Other influences, like warming Middle Eastern spices and preserved lemon and grains from northern Africa play a part. ‘We also use smoked paprika oil to add a depth of flavour to the sous vide octopus. It’s a popular dish; the Maltese just love octopus.’
Other local specialties on the menu include home-made Ricotta and Walnut Tortelli featuring the smooth and creamy Maltese ricotta called irkotta. Traditionally it’s made by cooking fresh sheep or goat’s milk rather than the whey. It is a premium food product – much like the clean-tasting fresh goat’s curd that today colours so many dishes within Australia’s artisan-influenced café menus.
There’s an appearance of formality in the plating of Chris’s food, no doubt born of his London-based Le Cordon Bleu training and his time at the Michelin-starred Galvin Bistrot de Luxe – one of London’s most loved French restaurants. But look again and you’ll see a range of creative and modern techniques, more detailed and delicate design, and new-world ingredients.
One dish that caught our eye was the Cuttlefish Tagliatelle with its flesh sliced very thin to resemble silky strips of pasta. It’s delicately cooked and served with a smoky capsicum-garlic cream, squid ink and fresh samphire that’s grown in France. The dish is finished with a touch of basil oil to add an additional layer of scented fragrance. It’s a dish of genius, perfectly presented.
Chris explains that he prefers his food to be clean and not muddled with too much complexity. While his flavour profiles reflect a mix of cultures, his food is essentially light. We’re surprised the hear that this is virtually opposite to the regular Maltese diet!
‘In Malta, traditionally, the food is heavy. And don’t get me wrong, I like nothing more than to go out with my family and share some braised rabbit or horse meat. You see basically in Malta it’s all about simple food, farmers’ food: everything’s cooked in the one pot!’ (Wild rabbits are so plentiful in Malta that they’re regarded as pests – apart from their culinary benefits.)
It’s that departure from tradition, the union of Mediterranean, Middle East and Northern Africa, that really makes Chris’s menu so attractive and logical. Sides like za’atar roasted carrots with Greek cucumber yogurt; and red quinoa with roasted pumpkin and coriander cress are authentic accompaniment options for the lamb rump main that’s served with cous cous; or the ribeye beef.
Regional tastes, like the freekeh tabbouleh with pomegranates, dates and mustard that accompanies the duck liver parfait, are as suited to the restaurant concept as the chermoula marinade chosen to flavour quail. Chris’s Tunisian version of chermoula – a spiced mix used also in Algerian, Libyan and Moroccan cooking – is made with a purée of dried dark raisins mixed with onions cooked in olive oil. Spices such as cloves, cumin, chilli, black pepper and cinnamon are added.
The wines served at Hammett’s Maċina Restaurant are international and the list of choices is highly varied. ‘If you go to Italy you’ll only find Italian wines, or more specifically if you go to Bordeaux you only have Bordeaux wines. But in Malta, because of our influence under the British, our wines are international, so we have Maltese, French, Italian, Australian, Argentinian. I really enjoy wine and I take my wine seriously. Because of this I manage the restaurant wine list myself.’
Which wines work best with his take on Maltese cuisine? ‘I always find that white wines grown in cool countries are better drunk in warm countries; the opposite can be true of red wines. As Malta is quite hot, I feel a nice crisp Alsatian riesling is something that works well. But I just love a complex and beautiful red wine. Malta’s finest wine expert, Michael Tabone, has worked with me for many years and has influenced me so much. And so my wine of choice would be a Bordeaux – a Saint-Emilion 2005 Grand Cru, any day. But not specifically one wine, you can never stop learning about new tones and techniques in the world of wine.’
Hammett’s Maċina Restaurant delivers a true taste of history, drawing on the island’s Mediterranean character and the strong semitic influence that is most apparent in its unique language. The food is cleverly constructed by talented Chef de Cuisine Andrea Marchetti under the expert guidance of Chris Hammett.
HAMMETT’S MAĊINA RESTAURANT
Xatt Juan B. Azopardo,
Isla (Senglea), Malta
Tel +356 2779 4171