Once upon a time, there were several traditional bakeries boasting a stone, wood-burning oven, along the streets of Malta and Gozo’s oldest villages. Today, most have closed down, but in Xaghra, Gozo, one such bakery has grown, and evolved into somewhat of an institution among locals: Tal-Furnar Restaurant and Bakery.
Run by the fourth generation in a long line of bakers, the bakery is 130 years old, and now operates mainly as a home-style restaurant that delivers the kind of genuine, heart-warming fare many will associate with their childhood on the islands.
“We are a family of bakers, and the bakery was started by my great grandfather, though his father was also a baker before him,” smiles the friendly Anna Marie Vella, who is at its helm today, together with her husband John.
She has recently taken the business over from her father, whose idea it was to open the restaurant alongside the original bakery some 18 years ago.
Up until two years ago, it was open as a fully operational bakery, but since then, they’ve cut back on the bakery side of the business to focus on the restaurant, yet still make bread to order.
“We still use the original stone oven my great grandfather built,” she explains, and in the kitchen, Anna Marie is proud of the fact that everything is made by hand.
“We don’t have machines, and use the natural mother dough for our bread.”
This approach extends far beyond the bread, she continues, to the restaurant’s well-loved dishes, including Gozitan ftajjar, as well as the dishes they slow cook in the oven, like lamb, suckling pig and pork cheeks.
“We don’t make anything in bulk, and always add specialities, so the menu is constantly evolving and changing.
“We also make our own ravioli, stuffed with Gozo cheese or rabbit. My mum came up with the idea of the rabbit ones, which are fried, and we kept them on the menu, as everybody loved them,” she says.
Apart from the magic of the stone oven, the authentic taste of the dishes here is also down to the produce – John has his own farm, which supplies the restaurant with lamb, rabbit and fresh cheese, instilling a farm to table concept.
The wood for the oven is also especially supplied, largely by several of John’s carpenter friends, who provide offcuts from their work, often in exchange for a ftira or two!
Harking back to the bakery’s past, Anna Marie reflects that this practice actually recalls life during the war, which her mother reminisces about.
“The bakery was quite a hub at the time. During the flour ration, villagers would come to make their own bread at the bakery, and my family would cook it for them.
They would pay for it with wood for the oven,” she explains.
It is this beautiful family atmosphere and dynamic, coupled, of course, with the food, that keeps customers coming back for more. “For us, it’s important to give people a good experience – a genuine smile makes all the difference, and makes people feel at home,” smiles Anna Marie, who also has plans for taking her family traditions into the future. “
We try to keep it as authentic as we can, while also striving to make it better. For example, we’ve recently started organising bread-making and ftira-making activities, to help share our heritage with visitors and children who visit us on school outings. In today’s busy lifestyle, people don’t have time to spend hours cooking, so it is really reminiscent of a traditional way of life.
The first, throwing a spotlight on Mosta-favourite XUFI (Olympic) Café and Bistro, can be found here
Photos by Inigo Taylor
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