Mona's Meals | Sunday, 26 April 2009
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Balancing the unpopularity books

Two Ministers are in my really bad books right now. “I know you do books, but I thought you didn’t do politics,” the Gay Best Friend told me over dinner at Fusion 4. “Well, hardly any of them can qualify as being in my good books,” I told him, “but hell’s bells: George Pullicino and Tonio Fenech. What an almightily short-sighted pair those two turned out to be. Since I pay their salary, they’re my employees, and I’m certainly not happy with their performance. I think I’ll sack them.”
George Pullicino has an official nomenclature, I’m sure, but the one responsibility which falls under his Ministry and which he consistently wants nothing to do with, either in reality, or in his public relations rhetoric, is agriculture in general and animal husbandry specifically. Because the EU has imposed long-standing hygiene restrictions over the rearing of animals for slaughter, Pullicino has, through his people of course, given the Oh Kay Jose to the destruction of natural feeding in this country.
If you thought you could set up an organic operation, or one whereby your chickens were running around eating scrap - and that includes good old grit, potato peels and apple cores; frankly anything that the cook throws out - and end up with excellent, tasty meat, then you may as well forget it. Your farm will be shut down. My great grandmother did this until her dying day on a huge farm (which was kindly taken away from the family for some idiotic industrial operation by the government of the day) and we did not die. In fact, I remember chickens distinctly tasting of something once they stopped being pets.
The Ministry has absolutely no idea of how to manage the people who manage organic and free-range operations. Years ago, I interviewed two farmers who were growing vegetables using only biological control (insects eating pests: perfect) and they said that the main problem was that at the Ministry, which was in charge of giving them the go-ahead or not on their imports, nobody knew what on earth they were talking about.
The rest of Europe has the hygiene restrictions of EU legislation to contend with, yet Italy, Spain, the UK and France have managed, have they not? Why do I need to get free-range sausages from the UK courtesy of Prince Charles and Duchy Originals because in Malta there is no free-range pork and its rearing is illegal? Why are we importing tonnes of free-range and corn-fed chickens from Sicily when we could be growing them ourselves? Yet no: the farmers have to feed their animals pellets, otherwise known as ‘feed’. Please note the use of a different word to ‘food’. Pellets are made from the by-products of the animal industry, bulking agents and in some cases, antibiotics. Farmers in Malta are at their wits’ end: damned by the government if they do; damned by the consumer if they don’t.
Then there is Tonio Fenech, strapping the economy by punishing the middle classes who thought he looked smart and sweet and came from a business background so would understand them and therefore elected him. For some odd reason, he is paying them back and will expect them to forgive him come election time.
Fenech, like Pullicino, is taking a short-sighted view of the economy. I am not Lino Spiteri or Alfred Mifsud. In fact, I can proudly say that I did my economy O-level twice and failed. Yet I do happen to have what is popularly termed emotional intelligence, and like most women, can see things further than Fenech apparently can.
There is no wheel reinvention in the theory that if economy is not that hot, consumers should be encouraged to spend judiciously, to regenerate, to keep the wheels nicely oiled. Instead Fenech keeps slapping more and more taxes on our faces like a clay mask that gets drier and harder until we cannot move a muscle. Hong Kong has a flat rate tax which does not go above 16 per cent. This encourages people to work like mad, to make money to spend, to invest. You can feel it in the very air of the city and in its constantly packed restaurants.
“He promised us a tax rebate on mothers returning to full-time employment!” a friend of mine - a highly-educated and specialised lawyer, not some overtime-hungry, will-resign-the-second-that-band-is-on-my-third-finger factory worker - told me last week, more irate and agitated than I’ve ever heard her. “Then he comes back with this ridiculous €2,000. Who the hell does he think he’s fooling?”
I went to get my plates and license at the Licensing office last week. Readers on the ‘Buying a Car from the UK’ on had warned me that in some situations, the staff at the ADT did not know what they were doing. I told them they were exaggerating. When I arrived at the counter, after three hours of queuing, I was slapped with a registration bill that included an additional €1,600 more than their website had calculated for me. I had to cough up; what do you do in these situations? Send the car back? So we live in the EU but our government continues to levy ‘out of EU’ taxes on our head, desperately.
“I went ballistic when that happened to me,” a reader who bought a BMW told me. “I just went bananas and started shouting and they retracted it there and then. This guy is polite, quiet, a total foodie, but then, he lost it. Sadly, at the ADT, my Catholic-school upbringing kicked in and I didn’t. Maybe I should have. Now I’m going to have to sue the freaking government, purely as a matter of principle.
Fenech and Pullicino come together in the local restaurant world. While countries around the Med are scrabbling to get people off their dining room chairs and on to the restaurant tables, Tonio is adamant that he will not do that so he can suck as much tax as he can out of diners, local and foreign, and get patted on the head by his boss. Where are the tax rebates for those who want to rear organically or educate themselves on the subject? Where is the encouragement for people to spend? And of course, because of Pullicino’s complete disregard for locally-grown produce and animals, restaurants need to spend more on produce and logistics on imported meat from Italy, France, Scotland and (God almighty) Argentina.
They had free-range chicken thighs at Fusion 4, slapped in an unctuous sauce, punched with chilli. It was comforting but there was, somewhere in the mix, corn-flour, which left an unpleasant swirl in the mouth. I had them for mains, and nibbled at the roast potatoes. Fusion 4 have to get out of the frisee habit, which decorates most of their plates: frisee is the frilly skirt of the lettuce world, expensive and highly boring, especially if under-dressed.
The GBF, who is a company director and so relishes an economic discussion as much as the next man or woman, had the duck. Edgar, who runs Fusion 4 with a passion, had promised it would be pink but I felt it was a little over-cooked. It was on the specials list but I remember this duck in soy sauce dish from the opening weeks of the restaurant. In fact, Edgar is adamant that people come here for particular dishes and he has not changed the menu in years. I call this ‘reactive restaurant management’: it works for some, but it bores me senseless. Mainly, in fact, it caters for people who restrict restaurateurs to produce their ‘favourites’ each and every time, and these very people only eat out once a month.
What is not boring at Fusion 4 is the setting, which is, simply put, stunning. On the inside it’s cute but on the outside it is fabulous. We sat between the enchantingly-lit bastions in the balmy April night and smoked as much as we felt like. The setting is what earns them the extra star. The food is very acceptable, but pushes no buttons.
Having said that, I truly loved the presentation and flavour of my chorizo and cheese stuffed mushrooms. It seems that the slow-down in economy has given rise to a turnaround in Jilly Cooper’s famous dictum: there is now enough time to stuff a mushroom and here they do it particularly well, with juxtapositions of textures and spices.
GBF’s rabbit liver starter was also slightly overcooked: liver is a piece of offal that truly needs a quivering inside, not only because it feels more pleasant, but also because the joy of its consumption is that it reminds you of the murder you’re committing. The cognac and onion sauce though, was absolutely sublime. Both GBF and I adored it.
Edgar looked worried when I left half my crème brulee there. There were two reasons: I am seriously worried about my tummy now. I have not stopped eating pasta and sugar since we returned from our European jaunt, and it shows. It also meant that the dessert fell short and was not worth the sugar. This one was overcooked and the cardamom seemed to be from pods that had been hanging around for a long time and was hardly detectable,. Sorry Edgar: don’t expect me to be honest then and there at the table - I, like most diners, find it highly embarrassing.
I have absolutely no idea what the white chocolate thingy which GBF had, and which came in a conical glass, tasted like. He did not even offer a teaspoon. Pah. Is that what friends are for?
I told Edgar that I did not agree with his wine mark-ups. They are extremely high. In most of the comments on, readers always get miffed at the mark-ups. And they’re right. The Chilean Baron Pilippe de Rotschild Carmenere from 2006 was absolutely superb, a beautiful, complex red. You can buy it from Charles Grech, the agents. I tried to explain to Edgar that he needs to encourage people to splurge on the wine, but instead, he insists on doing what most restaurateurs and Tonio Fenech are doing: castigating those who enjoy their grape in order to subsidise other who accompany their food with water.
All in all, unlike a day in Pullicino’s and Fenech’s offices, our dinner at Fusion 4 was, as the GBF described it, ‘magical’. The food may be a little dull and lacking in excitement, and the menu, at this point, boring, but there’s no beating that beautiful setting. If I had to push it a little, all in all, it felt like a microcosm of Malta: lovely to be in, but frustratingly so at most times.

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