Perched on a hilltop in the medieval village of Mdina on the Mediterranean island of Malta, you can find a 17th-century fortress, today converted into the spectacular Xara Palace Relais & Chateaux Hotel.
Malta has always been at the heart of the Mediterranean and subject to the myriad cultural influences of occupying empires and open trade. While the Xara Palace was originally built to keep people out, today its whole function is to welcome people in from all over the world.
A major attraction at The Xara Palace is The de Mondion Restaurant, led by talented chef Kevin Bonello, who creates a modern Mediterranean cuisine, representative of Malta itself. In the dishes, you can see a harmonious presentation of Italian, British and Spanish influences, not to mention local ingredients.
Bonello originally thought that his future lay in an alternative career – an engineer or a pilot. However, when at 16 years of age he took a summer job in an industrial kitchen, just before starting his secondary education, he got hooked. He knew he wanted to be a chef and the next year he enrolled at the Institute of Tourism Studies and the rest, as they say, is history.
Malta is just 166km from Sicily, Italy, and the Italian influence is everywhere to be found on the island, but especially in the food and it is evident in Bonello’s cuisine too. When it comes to his favourite ingredient, he doesn’t lie when he says: “Definitely fresh pasta. It was the first dish I worked on. I remember helping out in the kitchen on the dish of fresh egg pasta, shrimps, garlic, anchovy and grated bottarga. I love working with fresh pasta, the kneading, the flavouring.”
Of course, both Italy and Malta are producers of world-leading olive oil. “One ingredient that I cannot do without today – it has to be olive oil,” he says.
Local ingredients take centre stage too. Maltese snails are smaller and more intensely flavoursome when compared to French snails. The flavour is influenced by the terroir, and one can taste hints of wild thyme and fennel, since snails feed on them.
“At the de Mondion we pride ourselves on the Mtaħleb snails,” says Bonello. “These snails are cooked in aromatics, onions and herbs. We cook them in broth with fennel and wild thyme for two hours, we let it cool down and remove the broth. We unshell and tip its gut. It is sautéed with onion, garlic and wild thyme. The snail is braised again with the leftover sauté. To finish it, we use a lot of fresh herbs, mainly parsley and chives and then unsalted, diced butter. It is paired with a smoked celeriac purée for that earthy note, and soft hen yolk.”
‘Local’ and ‘seasonal’ are words that appear on every menu these days, however, Malta has a history of self-reliance. The small island community must rely on what they find around them to create a local cuisine.
“We are focusing more on local produce, sustainability and on sourcing our food from our locality. We are also growing our own vegetables and fruits on our property. We work hard to remain sustainable."
And these are concepts that are important to today’s customers. “We are also aware that current generations are more conscious to choose what they eat. The trend is to opt for more vegan, vegetarian and other healthier options, so we are focused to cater for such diets and improve our dishes every day.”
With all the different flavours and influences found on the plates in The de Mondion restaurant, probably the most representative of Bonello’s cuisine is the suckling pig.
“Locally we have succulent pork and it’s a dish that we take pride in nowadays at the de Mondion too,” says Bonello. “We spent a year of fine-tuning the dish before we launched in the restaurant. Initially we visited a number of local pig farms and opted for a particular one in Siġġiewi. The choice was based on the way these pigs are reared and their feed."
"When it comes to our suckling pig recipe, firstly, we brine the suckling pig together with coriander, thyme and fennel seeds. We slow roast it, debone and roll it. We leave the skin on the outside. We roll it, cut it and fry it. The end result is a super crispy on the outside and super tender meat on the inside. The suckling pig is paired with fermented vegetables to cut through the fattiness of the pig and local figs that are used to enhance the flavour and give that bit of sweetness to the dish.”
After a challenging period, Bonello is looking forward to welcoming back guests over the summer and The de Mondion is ready with a new menu, one that is informed by the customers’ opinions as well as seasonality and locality.
“Our starting point is the feedback from patrons about the previous dishes,” says Bonello. “We take on board the feedback we receive on a daily basis and apply it when we’re creating new menus and dishes. We find inspiration in the season and discuss ideas and techniques with the whole kitchen brigade. New techniques are acquired from social media and from local and international chefs that network with us. It is a must to stay updated with the latest when it comes to fine dining cuisine."
“Once we settle on the main ingredients, we perform research, we check its seasonality, to make sure that we use it in its peak times. This summer’s menu is inspired by our local paesaggio, using local produce and when possible from our own fields. We keep the menu light but full of flavours and textures.”