THE GREAT FENKATA: The History of an Island in One Dish
The Maltese peasants lived under many masters. There were the Arabs, the poor ostracized Maltese nobles — deemed little better than peasants themselves by the European elite, then in 1530 came the knights of the order of St. John. They, fleeing Jerusalem and then Rhodes, barely escaped the advances of the Ottoman Empire and finally arrived in Malta.
As the knights and nobles feasted on meat, the peasants eked out a living on fish and bread, bread and fish, day in and day out.
Malta is hot. Hot and dry. Hot, dry and small. It is not a country that can sustain large herds of cattle which ravish even the most fertile lands. If there was meat to be had, it would go to the nobles.
And so the villagers fished and dreamt of the day when they too could partake in the feast. Then the ban on hunting rabbits was lifted and fenek (rabbit) became everyman’s feast.
“But what is a Fenkata?” you say?
Put simply? One of those foreign concepts that can never be translated in one word; to explain a Fenkata, you need an entire paragraph. A fenkata does not just refer to the food eaten, but the conversations had, or the wine drunk. A fenkata represents every instant that is enjoyed and shared while eating this meal.
A fenkata involves the rabbit, but also the nougat sweets, and the peanuts that are served after the fenek to ensure that even those that did not eat themselves to bursting on rabbit, leave the table completely stuffed. Fenkatas are held at restaurants, at family get-togethers, on your first communion, on a whim when you realize it has been a week or two since the last time you ate rabbit. For many babies it is the first meat they eat.
The demand for rabbit is so great rabbit is imported from neighboring Sicily. Everyone has their favorite spot to buy their rabbit. One buys the rabbit straight from the local rabbit farmer, another from the village butcher.
It has become a national dish and everyone looks forward to the feast called fenkata.
Originally published at forgottenrecipe.com on February 12, 2015.