The Malta Independent 7 June 2023, Wednesday
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Qagħaq tal-Appostli

Simon Mercieca Friday, 3 April 2015, 08:21 Last update: about 9 years ago

During this time of the year, known in the Christian Calendar as Holy Week, Catholic Malta will be celebrating the Passion and the Resurrection of Christ. As always happens with important religious events, a number of traditions are re-enacted or recreated; some of which are of a culinary nature. One of these traditions is the so-called Qagħaq tal-Appostli or the Apostles’ bread ring. Today, this type of bread is not that different from any other qagħqa or bread ring that is baked throughout the year, except that the Qagħqatal-Appostlihas some almonds placed on top of it. Even the sesame seeds on the Qagħaq tal-Appostli were a normal feature to be found on top on all types of Maltese bread. Butwhat makes this Qagħqatal-Appostli different, and how has it changed over the years?

What I will state is based on evidence derived from oral tradition within my family. My great grand-father was a baker. Thanks to his hardworking wife, he opened a bakery at Cospicua. Fortunately, it survived the heavy bombardment of the Second World War. Yet, the family would leave Cospicua many years before these dreadful events. He left Cospicua towards the end of the nineteenth century and went to live at Paola, where he opened his next bakery, which is still operating till this present day. The business passed onto his male offspring and one of theirdescendantsis  still in this business. I got to know about this trade both from my grandmother and my father. My grandmother was the youngestin the family but none the less a brilliant cook. She used to recount stories about her father’s work, in particular about bread, whenever I asked her about the bakery.

I distinctly remember my grandmother telling me that the Qagħqa tal-Appostli used to be baked differently. In those days, I thought that her descriptions were historically far fetched. However, my historical research has proved my paternal grandmother historically correct. The Apostles’ bread was done in the form of a ring but the bread was braided, in the same way women braid their long hair. In other words, the baker first kneaded three or four long rolls of pastry, braided them and then formed a ring. The pastry was different from the one we are accustomed to today. The flour was mixed with ground almonds and if my memory does not fail me, honey and cumin seeds. Sometimes sugar was used instead of honey to reduce production costs.

I was accustomed to being told that sweets were not to be eaten during Lent in sign of penitence.For this reason, I could not understand how such sweet bread could be produced during Holy Week when the precepts of Lent were definitely highly observed by the local population. However, the idea that sweets are not to be eaten throughout Lent is something recent and must date back to the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

In the eighteenth century, there was a debate in the Catholic Church as to whether sugar and in particular chocolate should be eaten during Lent. The famous doctor from Cospicua, Giuseppe Demarco, wrote a study or dissertation in 1759 on this theme entitled De Usuet Abusu Chocolate in Re Medica et Moralior (About the use and abuse of Chocolate in medicine and morality). He came to the conclusion that it was permissible to eat sugar and chocolate during Lent as these are vegetables. The Church primarily banned meat and sex. The reason why doctors were being asked to study and discuss what is eaten or not in Lent is linked to the scientific knowledge of the time, or the theory of the four humours.Red meat was associated with hot body fluids and sexual arousal and this was the main reason why it was discouraged during Lent.

This explains why some Lenten food is full of sugar, starting with the Ġulepptal-Ħarrub, (Carob syrup) to Karamelli tal-Ħarrub (Carob sweets), Kwareżimal (which consist of ground almonds and honey), Qagħqatal-Appostli (with ground almonds), and finally il-figolli or Easter Cakes which were also made with ground almonds.

More importantly, the origins of these traditions, in particular Qagħaq tal-Appostli, should be linked to Lebanese Christians who in the past played an important part of our local Christian community.There were also other oriental Christians, in particular Greeks and Armenians. The presence of the latter can still be attested in Malta through the presence of such surnames as Darmanin, Armenia and D’Armenia. Many of these Oriental Christians took up residence in one of our harbour cities. These two communities had their own culinary traditions for Easter and their method how to bake their bread during Easter. My great grandfather got to know about Easter cuisine at Cospicua. 

It is a great misfortune, that we have lost a number of elements linked to the tradition of baking bread. The recent discussion about the Maltese bread is only the tip of the iceberg. Research will definitely show that some of our specialities are the result of intercultural fusion that occurred in our harbour towns where a strong foreign community thrived. The Qagħaq tal-Appostli are the result of the mixing of local and Oriental cultures, in particular culinary traditions of Christians of the Levant who entered our cuisine but now are lost or no longer practised. Our Christian inspiration is not only of Latin origins but also has elements linked to the Orient.



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