I followed Philip’s footsteps carefully, trying to place my shoe into his last place he stepped as we walked upwards through waist high weeds and overgrowth. The two dogs bound along in front of us like rabbits leaping through the weeds; full of puppy-ish excitement. The hills were starting to burst with springtime color and I desperately wanted to look around me, but I was focused on following Philip’s path. I hadn’t expected to be hiking at this moment. Instead I was expecting to be tasting the little known Gozitan wines and homemade jams in a posh little farmhouse setting.
The prickly thorns of wild weeds poked through my pants and I was quickly reminded that I was far away from posh.
However, deep down I much preferred this active site seeing and learning to sitting on my ass eating and drinking. In fact, little did Philip know, but I loved this. It made my heart putter to be one with nature and hiking my way through the wine fields and terraced hills rather doing a typical tasting. As Phil continued to blaze a trail upwards he chattered on about the history of Ta Mena and how it has evolved from his mother’s simple cooking and work into an agro-tourism hot spot of Gozo.
We stopped for a bit and the dogs kept going. Philip turned to me and said, “Do you feel that – the breeze is different up here. Can you tell the difference?”
I honestly have no idea if I could tell the difference, but I did enjoy the cool breeze as I finally had a chance to take in my landscape and surroundings. Phil explained that the different breezes and little microclimates of this terraced valley was what made the winery unique. They produced specific wines for each little terraced area where specific grapes thrived.
These hills have had various ‘residents’ in it’s soil. This family farming plot started as a winery 80 years ago and in the 1960’s changed over to primarly fruit trees where Carmena (Philip’s mother known as ‘Mena’) sold her fruits and vegetables on the side of the road to locals. She took the fruit left-overs and made them into jams.
Present day, the Ta Mena estate is back to it’s roots, literally – wine and olives. They still do produce other jams and spreads in small quantities, but their main mission today is to let the world know how great Gozitan wines are. And based on my taste test (after hiking) – they are great and can rival any Italian wine. They not only produce classic wines that pair beautifully with a the rich seafood diet of the islands, but they also have turned the estate into a complete experience for those who want to be more involved and learn about harvesting such crops. The grape harvest occurs from mid August to September and the Olive harvest occurs in October; tourists can participate in the harvest experience. Much like my hike up the hill, you have to be prepared to get dirty at Ta Mena.
As I walked down the hill listening to Philip tell stories I spotted the a familiar windmill with an American touch. I asked him about the windmill and Philip said that his father bought it years ago and it was like an oil well for them; the irrigation it provided was the just what they needed to produce abundant crops on this dry island. On Gozitan farms, water is prosperity.
As we walked to the bottom of the valley again we stopped in the rustic building by the road. This is where you can taste samples of the Ta Mena products as well as purchase them straight from the estate. However, my journey didn’t end here, it ended in Marsalforn, a little fishing village along the sea. This is where I was able to get the complete farm to table experience and taste all of the Ta Mena delights in a full meal at the restaurant Il Kartell. They serve Ta Mena wines, spreads, vegetables and utilize many of the Ta Mena products in their dishes.
I sat out by the seaside on a patio of tables basking in the sun. This is where I was introduced to my favorite simple Maltese/Gozo snack, kunserva, a sweet tomato paste served with bread. I had never eaten tomato paste straight, but I was well accustomed to using it in cooking to supplement sauces. My friend Ana explained the kunserva process to me and I followed her lead. First, pour olive oil on your plate, then take a crusty piece of bread and spread on the Ta Mena kunserva. Next place the bread, kunserva side down, into the plate of olive oil letting it soak it up properly. Finally, add the giant salty capers to the top and eat. Delicious!
The entire meal at Il Kartel was delightful and allowed me to try the Mediterranean specialties accompanies with Ta Mena wines and spreads. The sunny day wasn’t bad either. As I finished my last bite of desert, I was happy I had made the initial climb up the valley with Philip. It not only made the food I was eating more meaningful, but it also helped me justify dessert!
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