Following the intervention of Pope Clement VII, the Order of St John agrees to the modified terms offered by Emperor Charles V to occupy Malta. The terms also included the medieval right of purchasing duty-free grain from Sicily.
An early sixteenth century reference to bread made available to us by the knight Jean Quintin d’Autun (1500-1561), states how cumin which is ‘spread over the bread’s crust, gives it a very delicious taste’.
A report compiled by Count d’Alva, Viceroy of Sicily, to Philip II of Spain emphasized how the local diet was mainly dictated by a high consumption of bread as one of the several reasons to increase the quantity of duty-free Sicilian grain imports.
A breakdown of the total annual expenditure of the Order’s government reached the 32,000 scudi mark just to purchase Sicilian grain, an expense second to the amount spent on sponsoring the galley squadron.
Inquisitor Fabio Chigi (1634-1639), later Pope Alexander VII (1655-1667), expressed his concern related to Malta’s regular dwindling of grain reserves. The Inquisitor also remarked how peasants consumed bread made out of barley.
Gian Frangisk Abela publishes Delle Descrittione di Malta. The author makes reference to a town within which one could find the highest concentration of bakeries. In fact, this town was also referred to as Casal Fornaro (The baker’s village). To this day the majority of bakers come from this same town.
Harvest failure in Sicily soon had an impact on the dwindling local grain reserves. Emergency measures employed by the Knights included the distribution of rice as an immediate substitute, the mobilization of corsairing ships to capture and confiscate any booty of grain or food related items, and a trade permit issued to a Turkish merchant for the importation of grain from Tunis. The grain shortage had become so acute that all the Knights and those serving in the auberges had to receive a smaller ration of bread. Knights were even assigned the duty to distribute bread in the Harbour area: four in Valletta and one knight for each of the other three harbour towns.
A vessel laden with grain never reached Malta after its stop in the harbour of hunger stricken Trapani. The Grand Master was asked to send for the cost of the cargo so that the Order would be immediately reimbursed. A diplomatic squabble ensued as a result this event.
Grand Master Nicholas Cotoner established the Cotoner Foundation intended to erect new windmills. All the operations associated with the milling industry were entirely entrusted to the governments of the Knights as promulgated by the same Foundation’s legislative framework.
The Carafa Foundation remodelled the terms of the Cotoner Foundation in relation to local windmills. While the Order sustained its regulatory role, 10 windmills were leased to local millers.
The Manoel Foundation built windmills in several rural towns including: Birkirkara, Rabat, Ghargur, Zurrieq and one between Ghaxaq and Zeitun.
Nothing less than 30 individuals were arraigned in the Civil Courts of the Knights Of St. John in relation to a major organised theft of grain from the Order’s bakery. Paolo Dimech, servant of the Knight St. Pol, was the brainchild of this extensive criminal network. Apparently this smuggling activity went on for years prior to its interception.
Grain shortages forced the Hospitaller Knights to adopt drastic emergency measures. Bread was rationed and the weight of each loaf reduced. A small selection of bakers was supplied with just enough grain to cater for their clientele.
Newly elected Grand Master Emanuel de Rohan Polduc (1775-79) immediately deals with the exuberant price of grain.
Nothing less than 13 bakers from Casal Fornaro decided not to bake any bread for the Valletta market in a sign of protest. What seems to be the first industrial action by bakers in the history of Malta was the least welcome by Grandmaster Fra Emanuel de Rohan (1775-1797). They all experienced the squalid atmosphere of the prison cell.
A ‘bando’ published by Grand Master Manuel de Rohan mandating millers not to grind grain known to have been contaminated by extraneous elements that could be of a public health hazard.
In 1530 the Maltese archipelago passed under the control of the Knights of St. John. This chivalric order, with origins in twelfth century Jerusalem, was set-up to provide medical care for the pilgrims visiting the Holy Land. These European princes also held sword in hand to protect the faithful Christians against the Muslim. The struggle between Crest and Crescent remained to be the main raison d’être of the Hospitaller knights until their forced departure from Malta in 1798.
The coming of the Knights was like an exogenous shock, a strong and sudden impact that transformed every aspect of life. The spatial redistribution of administrative functions, demographic increase, centres of influence, economic growth and infrastructural changes left an indelible mark on Malta. The artistic heritage inherited from this period of history bears witness to the grandeur of this monastic order.
Such developments, nevertheless, took place against a difficult backdrop. The sterility of the land was a danger that worried the government of the knights throughout their rule. In fact the dependency on Sicily as Malta’s granary was the only means of sustenance to a constantly growing population which was only temporarily checked by major epidemics.
For the early modern inhabitant famine became a prevalent condition. In order to avoid the culmination of any possible unrest the Grand Master employed several emergency measures in times of general hunger. When grain supplies dwindled the Knights Hospitaller distributed rice and barely as a temporary alternative. It was neither unheard of that rural towns were assigned officers to ensure that all the grain given to the bakers was entirely baked into bread to avoid having people from rural areas congesting the urban towns.
Several visitors to the islands described the local diet as frugal and monotonous. At the same time, this period witnessed great culinary innovations imported from the discovery of the Americas. Tomatoes, potatoes, chocolate, corn, and turkeys, just to mention a few, became new foods in Europe. Nevertheless, the consumption of such foods was also met with a lot of resistance within the Mediterranean region.
The closing decades of the eighteenth century were ones of economic austerity. The reign of the Hospitaller Knights was brought to a close following the unchallenged occupation of the Maltese archipelago by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798.