During my childhood in Astoria, Queens, my Maltese relatives would congregate on Sundays. Usually there were guests and the grown-ups would swap stories and memories in the native tongue, a quirky language with Semitic roots that sounds very much like Arabic. The highlight of these gatherings, of course, were the goodies my grandmothers would make, such as pastizzi (savory ricotta cheesecakes), mqaret (fried date pastries), and hearty pastas—all culinary staples on the tiny group of islands located in the Mediterranean, south of Sicily and north of Libya. Family members who had recently visited the country brought back candies and—if we were lucky—one of Malta’s most storied gustatory treasures: peppery, vinegar-tinged cheeselets called ġbejniet (ġbejna is the singular form).
Addictive ġbejniet—pronounced jay-bee-knee-it—are found on appetizer platters, crumbled atop soups, alongside tomatoes and olive oil in sandwiches, or as a substitute for ricotta in recipes. I savored these cheeses as a kid and continued to crave them as an adult, but knew that I would have to travel to the source to sample all the varieties (it’s near-impossible to find them in the US). Fresh ġbejniet are smooth, semi-solid, and packaged in whey. Aged ġbejniet may be sundried or salt-cured. The peppered ġbejniet of my childhood, hard cheeses rolled in crushed black pepper and stored in oil or pickled in vinegar, are crowd-pleasers.
Most ġbejniet are made on small family farms on Gozo—Malta’s tiny sister island—from either pasteurized or raw sheep’s or goat’s milk, plus rennet and salt. Each ġbejna is shaped in a three-inch qwieleb, or cheese basket. Though there have been some modern upgrades to the production process over the years—once made from reeds, baskets are plastic now—you can still spot ġbejniet drying in open boxes covered with mosquito netting on Gozitan rooftops, a pastoral and drool-inducing sight.
When I take my annual trip to Malta, I can’t get enough of the snack-size ġbejniet—you’ll find me stocking up at local markets or fruit and vegetable trucks (the cheeses are available in grocery stores, but they’re usually made from cow’s milk and, according to some folks, lack the charm of the small-batch gems). Then, armed with crusty bread and tomatoes, I’m off to feast.
Bread with Oil (Hobż Biż-Żejt)
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 4 thick slices crusty bread
- 2 large ripe tomatoes sliced in half
- 2 ounces crumbled ġbejniet or feta
- 1 3- ounce can tuna in olive oil drained
- 2 tablespoons capers drained
- Ground black pepper to taste
- In a large, flat-bottomed dish, soak one side of each bread slice in olive oil. Carefully transfer bread slices to a plate. Squeeze tomato halves onto bread slices, then discard tomatoes.
- Top each bread slice with ¼ of the cheese, tuna, and capers. Sprinkle with pepper.