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Malta and Tea Tradition - Part I
By Georgina Gordon-Ham

In Part one of a two-part series, Tea & Coffee Trade Journal explores the Mediterranean island of Malta, along with their tea traditions and current tea importers and distributors.

Malta, a small island comprising of an archipelago of islands in the Mediterranean, has been ruled by a succession of powers over the centuries due to its strategic position. The occupiers included the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, the French under Napoleon and lastly the British. They also had a 200-year settlement by the Knights Hospitaller (also known as the Sovereign Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, or more commonly as Knights of Malta) in the period between the Arab and French occupations. Hence the country is a very rich collection of various cultural and linguistic influences. The British stayed in the country well over a century until Malta’s independence in 1964 as some British habits such as tea drinking gradually became part of the local customs.

Tea & Coffee Trade Journal contacted many notable leaders of the tea industry in Malta, which will be included in our in-depth two part series. This section will include Borg & Aquilina, Malta’s main tea importer and distributor and Caffee Cordina (the oldest established coffee and tea-rooms) in Valletta, Malta’s capital.

Borg & Aquilina, Malta’s Importers and Distributors
Borg & Aquilina was established in 1916 by Tanya Fenech’s grandfather, the late Borg. They began as general importers for food and beverages as the business gradually built up. “My grandfather started the business, and then brought in the partner Aquilina,” commented Fenech, manager for the manufacturing section of the business. “It was a sort of joint venture. Together they began the importing business. Then later Aquilina died and the Borg family took over the whole business. However, the name still remains Borg & Aquilina.” British Culture The British brought the culture of tea to Malta. Fenech explained, “We were a British colony, and there were several coffee shops in Malta at that time (during the 1930s). So the Borg family thought that tea was a new incentive and interesting for the business. They contacted one of the British tea companies and started importing tea.

At that time it was a wooden box with loose tea. The real tea business began in 1938 with loose tea. There were several British brands at that time: Lipton, Lyon, PG Tips and Typhoo used to be imported into Malta. Teabags came in much later, in the 1960s,” which is when the Borg family decided to register their own brand name, Lion. “We started with square teabags. The market share grew more and more as the tea business developed. At that time the British were still here. We bought more modern machinery in the 1990s which has made us fully automatic in that.”

Henry Schembri, Tanya and Mark Fenech.
Henry Schembri, brand and sales manager for Borg & Aquilina commented, “In the late 1960s we started with small packaging machines. Some of them are still here. The business was getting better all the time. We managed to have a good market with the teabags. The market share was growing and growing.” He then went on to explain, “We then decided to buy a fully automated machine which is a very efficient machine in the 1990s. We thought about choosing the shape of the teabag: square or round? Lipton had round teabags and PG Tips square shaped bags. The pyramid shaped teabag was not out yet. So we decided on the round shaped teabag because it is more suitable for the cup. We bought a machine tailor-made for us; it has a very good output.”

Fenech’s husband, Mark Fenech, also in the business and manger for their tea brand-packaging department stated, “It can produce 1,600 teabags/minute. There are boxes of tea for the general public and packets for catering.” He also explained, “We have to make sure the blend is according to our specifications and have it certified. We buy a certain amount and have to make sure it is correct.”

Regarding the size of the tea bag packets, Schembri replied, “We have boxes of 40 teabags, 80 teabags, 150 and 250. There is also the possibility of 160 teabags that is available upon request. We also have loose tea, 100 grams plus boxes of 10 kilos for tea shops and tea bars since they like strong tea. We are going into flavored teas. We do not blend teas ourselves and that is why we do not visit plantations. We have three suppliers: for black teas, chamomile and herbal teas.”

Herbal teas, green teas and lighter teas are still new to the local market and known only by a few connoisseurs and established tea rooms. As importers, Borg and Aquilina cater for local taste. We do our tea tasting because we know how our consumers like to drink tea with sugar and milk. We have two methods of testing: a local laboratory at the university and Teacraft in the UK. They analyze the blend such as where the tea comes from. We check the tea when it arrives. Teacraft tells us whether the tea is the same as the sample when it arrives. It must be our blend. Our specifications are checked.”

When asked about the volume, the sales manager Schembri replied, “It is not a big factory; we have a good technician. It is enough for the local market, for black tea. We have about 65% of the market share. In regards to exports, we do not export much. We export to Cyprus and Libya and a small amount to Lebanon. 95% is for the local market.”

2005 Lion Brand Award
Borg & Aquilina are also into herbal and fruit flavored teas. Both Fenech and Schembri were proud to mention their 2005 award, “Our brand of teas include the red label strong tea which won the 2005 taste award from the International Taste & Quality Institute in Belgium. Then there are the green label, which is decaffeinated and the superior black label, which is a blend of very fine teas with a percentage of Assam tea. These are the main Lion label teas.”

When asked where the teas came from, the reply was “Mostly from Malawi and Kenya; a bit from Assam but not from China. Our brokers buy the tea; we do not blend. We can mix. Holland was one of our suppliers, also the UK. Our blend is mostly comprised from Africa. We receive 15 to 17 containers/year, which equals to roughly 340 tons/year. We distribute to retailers and also directly to cafe's. Borg & Aquilina are importers as well as distributors.”

In regards to plans for the future, Mark Fenech commented, “Plans for the future are to find more spacious premises to have bigger equipment. We want to have a range. We hope to launch the green teas next year followed by the herbal teas.

Then there is bottled tea for the summer. It all takes time also for permits.”

Caffe Cordina - Cafe' and Tea-Rooms with a History
John and Jair Cordina
Caffe Cordina, one of Malta’s oldest cafe's is located in the center of the capital Valletta within easy reach of many historical sites, such as St. John’s Cathedral, the Grand Masters’ Palace, the Prime Minister’s office, the Manuel Theatre, museums, the courts and several other buildings which date back to the time of the Order of the Knights of St. John. The building used to belong to the Casa del Commun Tesoro, the Treasury of the Order. Like most of the island, it suffered heavy damage especially in 1942 during World War II. This is a family operated business dating back to 1837 with Cesare Cordina, John Cordina’s great great grandfather, who came from Italy and initially set up a sweet and pastry shop.

John Cordina, the current owner, said, “They came from San Gimignano, Tuscany. They used to sell nougat, which we still sell today. They brought that with them and used to sell it from a donkey cart. Then they started the coffee business in the town of Cospicua and later on they moved to Valletta. Initially they only dealt in coffee and then expanded.” The original Caffe' Cordina, located in Bormla (Cospicua), was destroyed by bombs in World War II. Hence, he continued “We moved to Valletta in 1944. It was my father Cesare’s idea. He gradually enlarged the cafe' adding tea-rooms, a bar, an outdoor cafe' and outside catering.” It is an ideal spot where tourists and locals stop for their morning espressoor cappuccino, or take their afternoon tea. Cordina has become one of Valletta’s landmarks, a place of charm and elegance. This was auspicious because it was also the year when I was born.”

Cordina says he always remembers his father mentioning the time when he (his father) was putting back the paintings on the walls and as he was putting back the one on the French, whom he resented, he was told his wife had just had given birth to a baby boy after three daughters. He recalled his father’s words and promise that “If I behaved I would run the business. That is what I tell my sons now. My father continued working until he was 80. He died in Rome. My father was always very pro Italian since his parents came from Italy. Once he invited the whole Italian football team of Inter to the cafe' when they came from Milan.”

The first thing that strikes visitors is the main hall, which holds a vaulted ceiling embellished with paintings by the Maltese painter Giuseppe Cali and gilt interior with mirrored walls. The paintings depict important events during different eras in Malta’s history, such as its occupation, independence, the republic and Malta’s entry into the European Union on May 1, 2004.

The Cordina family continued the tradition of commissioning paintings depicting important events, which include Malta’s independence, the birth of the republic and Malta’s entry into the EU, which was unveiled by the president of Malta. Cordina commented, “It was my idea. There is a Maltese boy and a European boy playing with the stars.”

The Family Business Continues
Cordina has three sons, Jair, Karine and Gianluca who are involved in the business. Jair and Karine both work for the Cordina business. Gianluca, the youngest son is still at university. In regards to ongoing development and expansion, Cordina was proud to mention 1964, the year of Malta’s independence from British rule, as the time when, “We organized the independence ball when Prince Philip came. It was a 1,300 sit down dinner and we launched our catering experience.”

To the question about the range of choices of tea and coffee, Cordina responded “We were the first coffee shop in Malta in the early 1950s to import the espresso coffee machine made by Gaggia. We always had to get someone from Sicily to carry out repairs. It was the first real espresso. Then we became so popular because of our espresso that all the Sicilians used to gather here in front of the shop. People look at us as the company which first brought espresso to the island. Italian ministers visiting the island come here. They all come here. One of them was caught on TV at Cordina saying ‘Come e’ buono questo caffe!’ (How good this coffee is!). It was an excellent advert for us.”

In regards to choice of blends, Cordina commented, “There is a Maltese importer but I insist on meeting the exporter in Italy. He also comes here and we decide on the blend together. This is for coffee. However everything goes through the importer, but if there is a problem I then speak to the exporter directly. “My son Jair can answer. However, to conclude on coffee, caffe latte has become very popular apart from cappuccino. In regards to teas, “I drink green tea at least twice a day.”

New ideas
There are 12 choices of tea selections at Caffe Cordina. Some come from Whittard & Chelsea. Jair, the man behind the new range commented on preferences saying, “Malta seems to have two main choice preferences for tea: those who like the stronger dark tea and then the more sophisticated people who prefer green teas and light teas such as Early Grey as well the traditional English Breakfast.”

The Italian influence is certainly strong in more ways than one for when it came to the question of coffee consumption and quantities, Jair replied, “We are one of the biggest outlets on the island. We sell about 4,000 cups of coffee a day.”

In regards to packaging, Jair replied to his interest in selling their own range of products. “We have a whole range. I started a company in 1999. We started with nougat and today we also sell vanilla delight, almond chocolate, traditional Maltese delicacies such as the honey ring apart from chocolate boxes with post cards on the history of Malta, olive oil, tomato pate, green olive pate, black olive pate, capers, caper pate, and later this year we will be launching a new range of pasta sauces which are traditional Maltese pasta sauces. We are also going into jams and marmalades. We do not export but do sell at the airport which in a way is a sort of export.”

Coffee Culture Launch
Jair Cordina was proud to mention one of his creations, “I have started a franchise called Coffee Culture. Basically it is the idea to have satellite shops rather than a wholesale, I prefer retail. People tend to buy a brand when they associate it with a specific shop. If people come here and enjoy the experience, then they will buy something and take it home since the brand is under the same shop.”

To the question, “Do people tend to buy more for their own consumption or as gifts?” He replied, “In regards to the reason for buying packages, I would say the split is about 30% for themselves and 70% as a gift to take back home.”

Cordina Looks Ahead Towards the Euro Currency
In regards to plans for the future, Jair Cordina concluded, “We develop new products from the feedback people give me. A restaurant is also being added to the tea and coffee rooms called Dolce.”

To commemorate Malta’s entry into the European Union, Jair mentioned their contribution to the event, “We are thinking about preparing a chocolate box with the Euro coin to be on display at the airport since Malta will be taking on the Euro in 2008.”

Tea & Coffee - June, 2008

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