BY SOPHIE RAPA-HOBBS
I explore my heritage through three generations of women in my family, sharing an entrée with granny, main with mum, and dessert with my big sister.
Entree of Pastizzi, cooked by Josephine Rapa
Married at seventeen, Josephine Rapa and her husband John had made it through the Second World War and were beginning their life together. “I didn’t fall for him,” she says. “He fell for me. In Malta the men go first.”
Every village in Malta has its own annual festival resulting in a festival just about every week. Competition is widespread between them, from the fireworks displays to the best street water fights. “I used to go to every one,” says Josephine as she lays the pastizzi out on a baking tray ready for the oven.
Hot favourites in Malta, a pastizzi is a pastry stuffed with ricotta cheese or a green pea mixture. Stalls of pastizzi are found on every corner in Malta. A warning: if served to precede a meal, it is a good idea to limit yourself to one. They are addictive.
Facing an economic down-turn, John left Josephine, his son Lorry, and the home they had built together for Australia’s shores. He left in search of money and security for his family. What he found was a multitude of jobs, but none of them paid much. He struggled to even pay for his return to Malta. “He left Lorry at 9 months old and then he stayed about three years,” Josephine says. “Then he came back, and we had Mary.” He left again for Australia when Mary was 11 months old.
“He said he is coming, he is coming, but he never came so I had to come here,” she says. Seven years after John first left for Australia Josephine packed up and said goodbye to everyone and everything she knew to join her husband. Thirty years old and with two children, Josephine travelled over a month on a boat to bring her family together, with no plans to go back.
She puts the pastizzi in the oven and sets the timer for 40 minutes. Josephine says she struggled with life in Australia at the beginning. “I said to John that the eggs don’t taste like eggs.” But John found no problem eating Australian food. “He likes everything. Even horse meat.” Minestrone, ravioli, pastizzi, rabbit stew. “We used to cook together many times. I think that’s the only thing I miss about him,” she jokes. “No, I miss him too, but I miss his cooking. The smells. He was always around the kitchen.”
“I was so busy with six kids I never had the time to socialise. I’ll tell you the truth I never went anywhere ever.” Josephine’s experience of the Australian people’s reaction to her and her family was not a positive one in the 60s. “When I first arrived people did not like us, or our food,” she says. “You might not think about it much anymore, but you’ll never forget it.”
Once a week a bus picks Josephine up to go to Lavalet, a Maltese community centre where she and her friends go to church and share lunch and a chat. “I go every Thursday,” she says. At 80 she now has time to socialise. First is a chat with the ladies, then a church mass. “After the mass we have a cup of coffee and cake,” she says. Then lunch. “There is grilled fish and some small pastizzi.”
“I came out here 51 years ago. Sometimes I used to joke that John forced me, but I’m not angry. I am always happy with him.”
Main of Boula Bave Pie, cooked by Tess Rapa-Davey
First generation Australian, third-born amongst her six siblings but the first of them born in Australia, Tess Rapa-Davey grew up speaking “Malt-English.” “I didn’t know I didn’t know the language,” she says. Tess thought English was just ‘extra words’. “I didn’t know I was speaking a different language at home, and maybe I wasn’t.”
School started and Tess was off with a ‘Hobz Biz-zejt’ packed lunch “Bloody tomato paste sandwiches!” she says. “Nearly got run out of the school for that because everyone thought they were blood sandwiches. But they were really nice though. Just olive oil and tomato paste and I still eat them today.”
She pulls out the ingredients she needs for the pie with a practised hand: four Nicola potatoes, a cup of peas, and a tin of corned beef along with salt, pepper, garlic, and onion. Observation is key in the art of cookery. “I used to watch mum and dad,” she says. Her mother did all the cooking until Tess was 16, and then her father stopped working and started cooking. “I think he got quite good at it, and I don’t think mum minded either that he just took over.” But the pie they always did together. “Mum did the pastry and dad did the filling.”
There is one ingredient Tess is hesitant to reveal. “Oh it’s a secret,” she says, as she thinly slices the potatoes. “It took me two or three goes at it and I accidentally found it.” Her father’s secret ingredient was only found by chance one day. “Well it was just so cool because then I realised that dad probably never told mum,” she says. Tess knew once she had smelt it that it had been missing all the time. “That’s the real test. The taste. It doesn’t matter what it looks like, that’s just chefy crap.”
In his seven years in Australia without his wife and children, Tess’s father worked as a cane cutter in Queensland. He hitched his way from the fields down to Sydney to live with his brother. “My uncle lived in a packing crate on five acres with no running water,” Tess says while she caramelises the onion in sesame oil. “This is poor people’s food,” she says, adding the corn beef to the frying pan.
Tess uses a marble mortar and pestle to pummel the pepper, salt, and garlic into submission and adds her father’s secret ingredient to the mix. “Now come and have a smell. It’s all about the smell. That’s how I knew.” She adds all the ingredients to the pan.
“So with pies you’ve got to make sure that the filling is cold when it goes into the pastry, otherwise it will make the pastry go soggy when you go to put it in the oven.” She makes room among the leftovers that already live in her fridge and slots the pie mix in. “I really should do a YouTube shouldn’t I?”
When cooled the mixture fills the pie. Another layer of pastry is blanketed over the top and fixed down with fork prints. Suddenly, Tess registers the time. “Oh my God! Half past seven! Gourmet Farmer is on. Time to call the kitchen hand,” she says as she calls her tall English husband to take over.
(What’s the secret ingredient? All spice.)
Lemon Meringue Pie, cooked by Chloe Hobbs
Young, blonde haired, blue eyed, fair skinned Chloe Hobbs grew up watching her mother cook. “She would like to think that she taught me how to cook,” she says, “but I actually taught myself too.” Especially baking, which was trial and error. “Pretty much error because I wouldn’t follow a recipe,” she says. Creating a cake can be a precise science, so Chloe’s reluctance to recipes caused a lot of flops. “You can get a cake really wrong. And I did,” she admits.
Chloe lays out her pastry ingredients: plain flour, icing sugar, butter and cold water. As a massage therapist she is used to using her hands, so while rubbing the butter into the sugar and flour she is on familiar territory. “I like being the cure that can relieve people of their pain,” she says. She adds the water and turns the pastry out onto the table to be rolled flat.
“I want to learn how to speak Maltese first and foremost,” she says after spending six weeks in Malta in 2010. Although most Maltese speak English, Chloe says, “I feel a bit left out when I’m over there for a long time. I would feel more accepted.” She lines the pie tin with the short crust pastry and places it in the fridge to chill.
“I always alter my recipes even if it’s the first time I do it,” she says while she juices two lemons. Today she will be adding lemon zest. “The zest is where it’s at,” she says. “It’s got those essential oils in the skin.”
Into a pot go cornflour, water, lemon juice and one cup of sugar. On a medium heat, this mix requires constant stirring. “Picking a pip out of lemon juice is like plucking a fly out of the air with toothpicks,” she says as she skilfully removes a rogue pip from the thickening pot.
Four minutes later the thick mixture gains butter and egg yolks and replaces the pastry in the fridge to cool. “For me not looking Maltese is really annoying,” she says as she blind bakes the pastry. “I get stared at when I even mention I’m Maltese.” She likes the way she looks but “when you want to be included and you’re neither this nor that It’s hard. I look in the mirror and I’m English but I feel more Maltese.”
She begins on the meringue by beating the egg whites until peaks form and then gradually adding sugar. “I just feel loud,” she says, “and quite passionate.” For as long as she can remember people have told her that her voice “carries”. She is proud of her heritage and she says she is “quite defensive over family when anyone tries to hurt them.”
In the beginning Chloe thought that dating a Maltese man would be cliché. Not wanting it to seem as though she was trying to hold onto the Maltese part of herself, she was reluctant to date her boyfriend of four years in the beginning. “I don’t feel like I need to prove myself to anybody which is what I thought I would be doing.”
She fills the pastry with the lemon curd and tops it with the meringue adding swirls and peaks wherever she sees fit. Back into the oven for another ten minutes and then it is ready to eat. “Everybody loves food, and good food is very social.”