Monday, January 23, 2006

The True Story of the Maltese Dwarf Garlic

In 1997 Mars and I visited the island of Malta. The following is a draft chapter from a short novel called the Men's Garden Club of Malta that I am currently working on. The narrator is Fenech De Piro, editor of the newsletter of the Men's Garden Club of Malta.

The Maltese Dwarf Garlic is the most prominent product of Maltese horticulture, but are we, the men who till the land and sow the seeds, proud of it? Not! Do we stand proudly on our limestone shores shouting out its praises over the crashing waves of the Mediterranean Ocean? No! Do we toast it with tankards of fine Maltese wine in our tavernas? Never!

Instead we skulk into the produce markets of the region, silently slipping our most popular product onto the shelves. Why, because it's just not a manly fruit - too damn small, and too gosh-darn cute. Lined up against the produce of other nations - the muscular gourds, hard-bodied pumpkins, burly potatoes and sinewy wheat - it's just, well downright embarrassing.

But it shouldn't be. In this case size doesn't really matter. It could have been bigger than all of the competition, maybe even larger than life itself, but we, the gardening men of Malta, for the well-being of our island nation, chose to grow it small. It is a part of our legacy and something of which we should truly be proud.

The story goes back almost six thousand years, to the time known to us as prehistory, back to the very origins of our country.

Led by Giovanni Gnieniannini, the Godfather of Maltese gardening and founder of our club, the first human immigrants to Malta landed around the year 5200 B.C. They came from Sicily, sailing more than ninety kilometers in tiny ships across the fierce Mediterranean, carrying with them only their families, a small amount of seed, grain and bulbs, and a few goats and cattle.

We do not know what they hoped would be here: better land for farming?, more game for hunting? something to do on a Saturday night? Skwirills for their favorite meal (squirrel cooked in garlic and wine)? Who knows.

But we have a pretty good idea of what they found. Limestone. Limestone. And more limestone. And, to their good fortune a land of fertile soil and welcoming weather. Plus herds of red deer whose ancestors had been stranded here when the peninsular connection to the mainland was washed away in earlier times.

So, like thousands of similar communities that were popping up across Europe and Asia, our Maltese founders stayed. They hunted and ate the red deer, planted the wheat and lentils, and raised their cattle, sheep and goats. And they grew their white Insolja and red Mammolo grapes in the rock-pocked Maltese soil and made their wines.

But, while they found scores of really old skwirill bones, there were no live skwirills to be found. These mainstays of the Maltese diet, and other former island inhabitants like the the hippopotamus, were marooned on the mainland side of the peninsula when it disappeared.

"Xejn skwirill - rvina!" ("No squirrels - all is lost!") the settlers cried. But even worse was the discovery that somewhere on their rough ocean voyage their starter-kit of five ge-normous garlic bulbs had washed overboard and sank to the bottom of the Mediterranean.

At the time, garlic was not only the key component in the Skwirill stew but actually the one and only, seasoning in the Maltese diet - from oatmeal to meat and everything in between, it all was liberally flavored with this strong-smelling, pungent-tasting bulb. "Tewma! Tewma!" they cried and several settlers had to be restrained from throwing themselves into the warm waters of the Mediterranean in a desperate search for their beloved flavoring.

"Xejn Skwirill! Xejn tewma! Xejn Hajja!" ("No Squirrel! No garlic! No life!") the settlers forlornly moaned. Things looked grim indeed for the early settlers of Malta.

Which of course explains the megalithic temples of Malta.

Centuries before England's more famous Stonehenge was built the Maltese settlers constructed several of these architectural marvels. The Tarxien temple and the Mnajdra temple complex at Hagar Qim were elaborate complexes of multiple buildings surrounded by mammoth walls of rock.


But the focal point of each sanctuary was a ten foot tall carved limestone fertility goddess - identity unknown, until today.

None of the carved icons have survived in their entirety. The most complete one is the lower half of a goddess consisting of two feet, two round legs and a pleated skirt at the Tarxien temple.

Looked at by itself or when compared to other later-built Megalithic images the remaining parts offer absolutely no clue as to the identity of the object of worship. Viewed within the context of the garlic-and-squirrel-deprived early settlers of Malta the character of the goddess becomes perfectly clear.

The feet are indisputably those of the missing Maltese skwirills - specifically the South European Gray Squirrel, the main ingredient in Maltese Skwirill Stew. And the ankles and "fat" legs are each, quite obviously, a garlic bulb. The pleated skirt, as always in such statuary, serves as the screen behind which the two garlic "legs" merge together and morph into the gigantic singular garlic goddess torso and head - as would be readily apparent had the top half of this, or any of the statues, been preserved - which they were not, and deliberately as we shall soon discover.

Throughout history, mankind has invented and then worshipped the gods that promised to provide the things that they needed at that time. And, if such a god or goddess did not already exist - well how hard is it to create them?

Intellectually, theologically and semantically - really easy. (A few glasses of Maltese wine among a few Maltese gardeners over a few Maltese hours and you get one new Maltese Goddess - Tewmanella, the Garlic goddess.)

Architecturally and engineeringly - really tough. Fortunately the limestone that had been such a curse was in fact the ideal building material - soft and damp when dug out of the earth and then turning white and hard after exposure to the sun.

But the design, planning and actual building of these temples required a degree of intellectual effort, planning and cooperation that is only seen in truly desperate situations - which this clearly was.

The work took decades to complete. And when it was done the entire population of Malta gathered to honor and worship the new goddess they had created - swigging wine, proferring burnt offerings and chanting:
"Give me a T! Give me an E! Give me a W!......
What does it spell? Tewmanella!"
and
"Tewmanella! Tewmanella! Tewmanella! You are our pick!
Give us! Give us! Give us some gar-lic!"

And they looked out upon the waters of the Mediterranean and saw an armada of tiny white bulbs bobbing towards land. Either through the divine intervention of Tewmanella or by sheer coincidence, thousands of dwarf-sized garlics, tiny offspring of those giant lost-at-sea tewmas, washed up onto the limestone shore.

Amidst the frenzy of garlic gathering and celebratory splashing the voice of Giovanni Gnieniannini was heard. "Let us not forget this day. And let us always remember the tiny bulb that has saved our community by preserving it forever in this handy, pocket-sized version. Size doesn't always matter - smell does!"

"Yes! Yes!" chanted the multitudes.

"Good." said the voice. "Now let's go knock down the top half of the Tewmanella statue, see what else we need, and come up with a new goddess. We can just keep recreating her - kind of like a Mr. Potato Head. I mean we’ve got the whole temple set up and everything. It would be a shame to waste it on astronomical calculations or something silly like that. Myself, I'm thinking casino."

And as quickly as that the upper portion of the statue, and all memory of the garlic goddess, was gone.

1 comment:

Gita said...

Kumar has told me the design for the cover of Men's Garden Club of Malta came to him in a dream. A most auspicious sign, is it not?