In 1974, inspired by his wife, Nenu transferred the operations from Gzira back to his hometown of Qormi, to a bakery in Garden Street. This marked a new, but, also, a tough beginning for the Debonos. Starting as early as 4am, Nenu and Angela’s day would end at around 10pm... if they were lucky! Angela was essential for most of the work at the bakery. Every morning she would order and pay for the flour, the salt and many other necessities while, also, rearing the children. Nenu recalls how this lifestyle felt natural to them. He recalls how it was a different culture and lifestyle altogether then what we know now.
Nenu’s routine in those days was, literally, a twenty-four hour activity, involving all the members of the family. Angela’s job was in the preparation of the yeast, some three to four hours before it was mixed in the main dough. This normally happened during the afternoon when Nenu was getting his daily rest. As soon as he took over, Nenu put the dough in a large ceramic container to ferment for around two and a half hours, depending on the season. After repeating this process for every batch of dough prepared, he, many times together with Angela, would start to cut and weigh chunks of dough and roll them into mounds, let them settle for a while and bake them in a wood-fired oven to, eventually, become the crispy brown ‘Ħobża tal-Malti’ so popular with the locals and foreigners alike. At times, this activity was also shared with hired labourers to give time to Angela to get her sleep with the rest of the family. Before the sun would set, the second bake would be ready to be stacked on the horse-driven box-cart for delivery to the local towns and villages. During all this activity the front doors of all the bakeries in Qormi used to be left wide open for all to visit with the bars owned by Sidor and il-Gaggu serving tea and coffee throughout the night to bakers, policemen on the beat and vegetable vendors coming from neighbouring villages, primarily from nearby Żebbuġ and Siġġiewi. In those days, nightlife activity in Qormi was breathtaking.
Nenu places emphasis on and highlights the importance of the 'Ħobża tal-Malti' being included in the daily Mediterranean diet especially for its high nutritional value. The world of bread-making fascinates him to the extent that he considers bread baking to be an art form, one which has gained considerably from his experimentation in the quality of the dough used in Maltese bread. Nenu speaks passionately about the dough as being a living organism - it is dependent on the quantities of ingredients, the type of water used, the type of flour, the temperature to which it is subjected and so on.
The Maltese bread is made by a system of sour dough, or mother dough, inherited from one days’ dough to the next and it is made from American, high-gluten, hard-wheat flour mixed, approximately, in a 60:40 proportion with European soft wheat, salt, water and yeast. The taste of the bread is largely dependent on the recipe and less on the type of oven – timing is crucial to the extent that even the seasons affect the final product. The traditional ‘forn tal-ġebla’, or stone oven, involved direct fire using wood or kerosene, whereas the modern deck-oven uses kerosene to heat distilled water running in tubes along the decks. Nenu accentuates the fact that modern oven involves far less manual labour to clean, and is also more hygienic.
With the growing demands of progress and through Angela’s motivation, in 1986 Maypole moved its operations to a new bakery and shop in St Joseph Street, the same street where Nenu’s father was born and bred. Helped and encouraged by his six children, the company has, since, successfully expanded and opened various shops across Malta ... in Qormi, Fgura, Żabbar, Iklin, Attard, Buġibba, Swatar, Żurrieq, Hamrun and San Ġwann.
In order to meet the ever-growing demands and variety of tastes of the local market, the new Maypole bakery invested in a new production chain and the most up to date technology.
Nenu explains that, in the old times, everything was done manually and this required a great skill. Today, the skill lies in understanding how to use the modern technologies in the best way possible to retain the genuineness of the Maltese Loaf.
Nenu is very proud of his profession and was pleased when the Malta Crafts Council recognised the trade as a craft under the provisions of Act XXI of 2000. Throughout the years he has strived to keep the tradition of the Maltese bread alive by giving the general public more knowledge related to its nutritional content, to the way bakers worked in the past and to the prominence which the Maltese bread had in the life of our ancestors. Nenu has set up various events and projects to promote the Maltese product such as:
- A Conference held on the evening of the 29th May 2007 at the Mediterranean Conference Centre organised solely by Maypole and entitled ‘Is-Saħħa Tal-Ħobża Maltija’. For the night, the Conference Centre was turned into a typical Maltese village and people present were transported years back to a more communal way of life. A number of guest speakers were invited to give different insights into the Maltese bread. These included a nutritionist who presented a scientific view of the nutritional value of the Maltese bread, a priest who detailed the importance of bread in our primary religion, a health and safety specialist who treated the topic of health and safety issues within the food industry, a historian who described the role of the Maltese loaf within Maltese history and a Head Chef who gave an explanation of a reception based on bread
- Since 2007, an event has been organised within the village of Qormi named ‘Lejl f’Casal Fornaro’, with the Maypole Group being the main sponsors and organisers. For the night, the streets of Qormi are decorated and visitors can taste and drink typical Maltese produce. Various entertainment, along with a multitude of displaying tools utilised in the past for the processing of local food and drink, as well as, traditional folklore dancing and singing can be viewed and enjoyed by visitors. With Qormi being traditionally the village with the largest number of bakeries, the emphasis is, obviously, on the production of bread. The festival has, since, been organised every year and is constantly growing, both in its organisation and in the number of people visiting, which includes a considerably large number of tourists. Encouraged by the success of such an event, other local villages have taken the initiative of organising events to promote their culture and history. These have served to increase the awareness of our own past amongst the local people, as well as, increase the number of entertainment appointments for tourists.
- A book entitled ‘Għemil il-Ħobż’ has been published focusing on the Maltese bread. The Maypole Group contributed heavily by providing knowledge to be included in the text and was also its main sponsor. The book gives an account of the derivation of the ingredients of the Maltese bread, the production process, its history and details of the bakeries of Qormi - both those operating and those which have since being converted into other businesses or buildings.
- Nenu’s contribution was very pivotal in the production of a 10 minute entertaining video showing the typical Maltese village life a generation or two ago. Various original props were utilised to recreate the ambiance of a village square.
In recognition of his efforts and hard work, Nenu was also conferred with the MQR - Medalja għall-Qadi tar-Repubblika – an honour conferred to those who are recognised as having been of service to the Republic of Malta.
Various other initiatives have been, successfully, undertaken by Nenu and his family to promote the craft of bread making, both locally and abroad. One such successful project was the restoration and conversion of an old disused bakery (Nenu The Artisan Baker) situated in the southern area of Valletta, on the way from St John’s Co-Cathedral to Fort St. Elmo. The restoration of the dilapidated bakery to its original state, had as its primary objective the creation of a place where the art of bread and typical Maltese food-making could be viewed, tasted and appreciated. Not only has that goal been achieved but the location has become a living museum, interspersed with artifacts involved in the manufacture and selling of bread, dating back to the days when bread-making involved a great deal of manual work and selling bread was done using horse-drawn carts. Guests have the possibility of tasting freshly baked produce in a serene ambience and it is also possible for them to attend cooking sessions.
Today Nenu and his family work hard not only to run a business but also to maintain the validity and importance of a genuine Maltese product that has for decades given character to local cuisine. Although his baking work has reduced gradually over the last years, he still goes to the bakery every day. Nenu sees his children’s involvement as a blessing not only for the success of the family business but also for the survival of the baker’s craft and trade for the benefit of a healthy and genuine Maltese product.
One of Nenu’s misgivings is the fact that Malta lacks a school for bakers. He fears that the skill to bake the Maltese bread can, eventually, be lost. Many other bakers’ children do not want to follow in their father’s footsteps. This makes it very difficult for the small artisan bakers to survive because, as Nenu explains, to train and teach someone the skill is a lengthy and costly process. According to Nenu, the best schooling, in the circumstance, is when the children of bakers learn from their elders, keep the trade and tradition going and, likewise, pass on the acquired knowledge to future generations. Because of this, he considers himself to be a lucky man, not only because he had the chance to learn from his father and pass the knowledge on to his children, but, also, because he still finds the need to explore new methods of bettering the final product.
Carmelo, better known as 'Nenu'