The historical inspiration behind Under Grain’s sublime new pasta dish

Under Grain’s Michelin-starred Chef Victor Borg is proud to unveil Papiri ‘Gentile Selection’, a sublime new pasta dish that forms part of Taste History Meets the Stars. This unique concoction of pasta di semola di grano infused with crispy chicken wings, parmesan, yeast, and raw king oyster mushrooms is featured on Under Grain’s autumn à la carte menu.

 

Chef Victor was set an intriguing challenge by Taste History Meets the Stars, the year-long gourmet project set up by the Malta Tourism Authority and Heritage Malta’s Taste History initiative. The brief was to create a dish that takes its cues from the Rosselli building’s ties to food in the capital.

 

With the assistance of the Taste History team, Chef Victor embarked on a culinary journey through the ages to discover the foods, flavours, and traditions of food in Valletta. Together, they stumbled upon a collection of curios and anecdotes that served as the perfect inspirational ingredients for Chef Victor to dream up his Papiri ‘Gentile Selection’ dish.

 

The most conspicuous link was the building’s Merchant Street address. Home to Is-Suq tal-Belt (Valletta’s iconic covered market hall) since the 19th century, locals from all across Malta would congregate here to buy the freshest fruit, veg, fish, meat, and eggs. A hop, skip and jump away is Old Bakery Street, which has housed a string of family-run bakeries since the times of the Knights.

 

These widely-know details were fascinating enough but proved too broad in scope to narrow down on a single dish. The clincher came when Chef Victor heard mention that the friars at the nearby Dominican Priory loved to commune over a hearty plate of pasta. It was supposedly their favourite meal.

 

This allusion to pasta led the Taste History team to seek out a 19th-century painting by Charles Frederick de Brocktorff. The watercolour opens a window into a period tavern and is the oldest known image of locals feasting on pasta in Valletta. Front and centre of the image is a characterful chap feeding himself a tangle of spaghetti by hand. Common cutlery such as forks not being so commonplace back then.

 

Throughout the centuries a range of economic and class-based factors have been at play in how pasta has been cooked, served, and enjoyed in Malta. For the longest time, everyday folk were accustomed to eating a brown-tinged wholemeal pasta. White pasta was reserved exclusively for the affluent, who also had easy access to what are now considered run-of-the-mill pasta toppings—meat, mushrooms, high-quality dairy products.

 

Wishing to tie his dish more exclusively to Under Grain’s own history, Chef Victor made one little leap of logic. The Rosselli family–the noble original owners of the Rosselli building which houses the restaurant–would have been in the right social class to enjoy pasta in all its ingredient-rich, upper-class glory. With this hodgepodge of details in mind, Chef Victor set about designing a dish that bridged the divide between the charms of homespun cooking and the sophistication of fine dining.

 

“It’s an honour to participate in Taste History Meets the Stars. This was a unique opportunity to delve deeper into Valletta’s rich history of food and cuisine. Food is about much more than the act of eating. It’s also about our history and traditions too, about creating communal experiences that are passed down through generations. I sought to blend ingredients that would have been common to different classes in Valletta’s past—the pasta common to all, the mushrooms and parmesan of the wealthy, the yeast used in the bakeries. I hope that I’ve created something new, where every mouthful is a memory that lingers,” explains Chef Victor Borg.

 

Experience the fulsome flavours of Papiri ‘Gentile Selection’ for yourself. Make a reservation at Under Grain restaurant today.

Photography by Brian Grech