In the blue Mediterranean lies an archipelago of islands, one of which is named Malta. Not quite the setting where you would expect tea experts and tea traditions dating back centuries. And best known as the origin of “The Maltese Falcon” — you know, that troublesome little statue that people were bumping each other off for in the classic 1941 movie.
Being in a strategic position, Malta has a long and varied history. Control changed hands many times. The Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, French (under Napoleon), and finally the British took turns claiming sovereignty there. Each left their mark on the culture and language of the people there, with the British imparting their love of tea to the locals during their century of rule. Malta became independent in 1964 but retains the tea traditions and much more.
Importers Borg & Aquilina, established in 1916 while the British were in control, got the idea to start importing tea to Malta in the 1930s, despite coffee being the most common beverage at the time. Wooden boxes filled with loose tea bearing brand names like PG Tips, Typhoo, and others that were already British favorites began arriving on the island. In the 1960s, Borg & Aquilina started putting the tea in square bags, branding them with the name “Lion.” In the 1990s they did an upgrade of their machinery so that the process was fully automated and switched to the round teabag shape.
Of course, this growth in Borg & Aquilina meant a growth in tea consumption among the people of Malta. Coffee shops started also serving tea, tearooms opened up, and eventually herbals as well as fruit-flavored teas became available, although they along with green teas were in limited demand. Black tea ruled in Malta. With milk and sugar. Very British.
In the capital city of Valletta is Caffe Cordina, one of Malta’s oldest cafés, founded in 1837. The building it is in was damaged during World War II, but the business thrives. The founder Cesare Cordina came from Italy, starting the business as a sweets and pastry shop. A tearoom, bar, and finally an outdoor café were added. They hosted a sit-down dinner for 1,300 when Prince Phillip visited in 1964 to officially acknowledge Malta’s independence. Truly a café full of history. Today, the café is a landmark as well as a place of charm and elegance. The main hall boasts a vaulted ceiling with paintings by Maltese painter Giuseppe Cali and gilt interior with mirrored walls. They offer 12 choices of tea selections.
The Maltese seem to prefer straightforward stronger dark tea and the more sophisticated-palate-pleasing green teas, as well as light teas such as Early Grey, and of course traditional English Breakfast.
No need to chase around San Francisco or hire a private detective to find your Maltese tea connection. Just steep yourself a nice cuppa one of the above teas and stick the Bogey classic in the DVD player. Here’s looking at you, kid!
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