I was out for a quick midday swim at Ġnejna Bay with two guests visiting from Denmark when the doughnut van showed up. Intrigued by the oddity of having hot doughnuts sold off from a van in the middle of a hot day as opposed to the fresh, cool ice cream most people could relate to, the Danish ladies were curious to learn more about this aspect of Maltese culture. I found myself giggling as I translated the recorded call and explained how this was the modern version of the traditional Maltese street vendor.
Yes, indeed, today the Maltese street vendor has evolved to sporting a shiny van containing his goodies. Whether it is doughnuts, imqaret (traditional Maltese deep-fried fig pastries) or bigilla (traditional Maltese bean paste) he is selling, the vendor no longer has to call out to attract customers, as a recording plays the same mantra over and over again. So much so, that children love to sing out in mockery: “Hawn tad-doughnuts, friski u tajbin!” – “Here’s the doughnut vendor, they’re fresh and delicious!” – as they learn the jingle by heart.
We may still see the petrolju (kerosene) seller with his special truck armed with plastic containers, as well as a variety of household items like brooms and toilet paper, in certain parts of Malta. Vegetable trucks still colour the corners of most villages. And then there is the obligatory ice cream van with the happy tunes that attract children in a timeless way. But times have certainly changed.
I have seen the Maltese street vendor evolve even in the 38 years I have been alive. When I was a child, we bought fresh bigilla from the old man with his donkey-pulled wooden cart. Even earlier, the bigilla vendor pulled his own cart. A woman would come to our street with a pram, inside which she would have fresh goats cheese and eggs for sale, and prickly pears when they were in season. Many years before, as in this photo from the 1930s, the goat itself would come to your doorstep and the barefoot farmer would milk it there and then as a guarantee of the milk’s freshness.
The ladies remarked how wonderful it felt for them to be living with us in a typical small village where small grocery stores still existed, a garage would miraculously open up to reveal a stack of fresh vegetables for sale, and truck vendors would still come honking their horn to sell anything from bottles of cheap detergent to gas cylinders.
I wonder how soon it will be when all you might ever need will only be available from a large department store … I just hope it will not be too soon!