The Old Emerald Isle where I come from has, like most other places, its faults and failings, but it still has some magical influence on the millions that had to leave it over the centuries. Some kind of magnetic force that grips their hearts, and will not let go until they return, like John F Kennedy, to the “Green and Misty Isle,” to the little dot on the map that spawned, and sent forth ‘Poets, Presidents and Preachers’ to all corners of the world. A favourite expression of the homesick Irish emigrants throughout the world is: “Some day I’ll return to the Old Sod” and when you hear it you wonder how an old sod – that they hardly noticed before they left – could now generate such nostalgia and affection.
Well, of course, we ‘Paddy’s know the answer. No matter where we travel in the world, we never find a sod of clay so brown, so deep, so rich, or so fertile, than the lush carpet that envelops Ireland, and that’s why we can feed the world and her children with our tender meat, our golden grain, and our succulent dairy products. And when we die, we are happy and contented to be gently laid into its loving breast, to snuggle and slumber in its bosom of solace and tranquillity.
What, you may well ask, has all that got to do with Malta? A good question – Well, I’m about to explain, and you’ll then get my gist! I, and thousands of other Irish gardeners spend our springs and summers cultivating that lovely rich sod, and it generously feeds us with an abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables, that keeps the smile in our eyes, and the healthy colour in our complexions. Of course, we have to be on our guard against thieving burglars: birds – especially pigeons – rabbits, hares, etc. but by far the biggest enemies, and the most detested tyrants of them all are the snails, or slugs, that sneak in during the night – like an army of enemy tanks – obliterate all before them, and disappear by morning, leaving only their slimy trail of destruction, and the certainty that they would be back for more fun and feasting. No wonder the little evil monsters are the sworn enemy of the Irish gardener, and at every sighting are gleefully crushed under the hobnailed boot.
I was in Valletta one day, and decided to drop in for a beer. I entered the nearest hostelry, which was a Band Club – bar, café etc. Taking my glass from the counter, I moved to a table, sipped my beer, and observed my surroundings. These band clubs are all over Malta – during the spring, at the height of the season of village feasts, the bands play an important role in the celebrations, and they are a big part of Malta’s rich culture. I noticed the barman emerging with a big tray, loaded with bowls of something – free snacks, I figured – and distributed them to the drinkers. Although I was the solitary one at my table, he generously had no intention of denying me my little free treat. He placed the bowl in front of me, and I instinctively ‘thanked him very much’ “Your welcome, Sir,” he said, “have a nice day” Well, my eyes nearly popped out of my head, and my stomach lurched when I discovered the contents of the offering. Staring me in the face was a little army of Ireland’s slimy, plundering, arch enemies, and to think that this was a tasty treat that I was meant to swallow, savour and relish!
I was glad when another man – a Maltese – placed his glass of beer on my table and joined me, diverting my attention. The little evil army was now surrounded – but they were in no danger of an attack from me – although I did cop my table-mate eyeing them with a somewhat longing affectionate look. Alternating his gaze from the bowl to me and back again, I knew a strike was imminent. Making friendly eye contact with me, he smiled, pointed to the tank brigade and asked: “You no like?” I forced a return smile. “Oh, no, not at all, feel free, I’m just thirsty to-day.” He thanked me profusely and preceded to scoff them all with aid of a tooth pick, that evicted the occupants from their tanks, and impaled nakedly on the spike, landed them on to the extended platform of his saliva-dripping tongue. My poor old mother, when she was ever in a threatening situation always said a little prayer, and I swear it came back to me that instant: ‘God between us and all harm.’
I decided to make a quick getaway, because I could sense the symptoms of an onset of nausea, and anyway, even my bloody glass of beer had turned sour. So I bade farewell to my snail gourmet, leaving him with his empty shells and his belly-full of goo. I have since discovered that snails are one of the most cherished delicacies in Malta. They are on the shelves of all good fruit and vegetable shops – I can’t get my head around how the predator and his prey can happily occupy the same shelf, but they do – and they are in great demand at up to three Euro per kilo. Despite my total abhorrence at even the sight of the slimy little monsters, I have to commend the Maltese farmers for their shrewd enterprise. Instead of crushing them under their boots, they harvest them and turn a pestering nuisance into a lucrative extra crop. Now that’s definitely one up on the Irish!
Excerpt from ‘It’s a Long Way to Malta’
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