Colonial Store is my first post under ‘Red Bistro shops’. I am on a mission to document some of my favourite retail food haunts, whether in my adopted homeland, Malta, or those discovered on trips abroad. By ‘shops’, I mean the verb too of course; not just a window-browsing review. I find it impossible not to nab an edible delight if the store tempts. There’s a recipe following soon with some choice ingredients from Colonial.
You may rib me that Colonial Store, given its name recalling British rule, has obvious (historic) allure for a Brit abroad. The name is a firm part of this store’s heritage, even if its wares have changed to suit various clientele over the hundred plus years it’s been trading. As the sign says, it’s been a retail business since 1882, starting out as a general store – often called a ‘bazaar’ in Victorian times; even today you come across the word on old stores in Malta. It then became a stationer’s before Stefania Vella opened it in late 2012 as an artisan food store subtitled ‘Treats with a Passion’.
Located on St Paul’s Street in Malta’s gem of a capital Valletta, Colonial Store lies just up from imposing Grand Harbour. In Valletta’s heyday of shipping trade in the 19th century, St Paul’s would have been one of the city’s busiest shopping streets, offering the latest imports from fashion finery to everyday foodstuffs. With the decline in Valletta’s population post War, and with shifting consumer demand and competition from large, out-of-town stores, St Paul’s Street has languished for decades with boarded-up shops and near dilapidated palaces. Until recently, that is.
Colonial in its revamped form is a sign of changing times and the fortunes of St Paul’s Street which is now becoming very ‘des-res’. However, unlike many newcomers (think architects’ and design studios and boutique hotels), Colonial Store’s Stefania Vella is a member of the original owning family: “My family own the building in which Colonial sits, while my husband’s family rented the shop and ran it for several generations. When his father passed away in late 2012, we decided to open up Colonial again. In fact, it was closed only two months before we gave it a lick of paint, new lighting and stocked it with goods we’re passionate about – artisan foods from Malta and Sicily.” Some of the store’s older customers, who used to come in only every so often when they made the journey to Valletta, still asked after her father-in-law and were perplexed not to find the stationery shop. “They were at first curious to see Colonial’s new incarnation, but were won over and happy that the place was given a new lease of life,” Stefania says.
Stefania explains that she purposely wanted to retain the feel of the old store. No interior designers called in here, in contrast to the new hotels opening up along the street They kept the original shelving with its deep, yellowy-cream (tinned rice pudding) coloured paint touched with 50s’ pastel blue. “We kept the print of the Bleeding Heart’, says Stefania, ‘It’s always been here; it’s part of the soul of Colonial.” Shelves that once housed copy books, confetti and tinsel, now display delectable little pots of Sicilian and Maltese preserves from confittura and sugo for pasta along with a hand-picked range of wines from European estates and silky smooth liqueurs flavoured with chocolate, espresso, almond, lemon, vanilla and more.
Stefania’s favourites among her many flavours, spices and scents are the Modica Cocciolato bars and the tricolore pasta. “Modica chocolate has a distinct grittiness to it as it’s made a far lower temperatures than regular chocolate which means the sugar doesn’t dissolve completely. Modica chocolate traces its root to the Aztecs, as the Spanish brought chocolate and this particular method of making it to Sicily when the island was part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.” Stefania knows her stock well, but more than just to gives sales spiel; she is passionate about the ingredients and develops recipes from them to post on Colonial’s Facebook page.
The treats on offer may feel special occasion, but a glance at the prices makes me realise that this is a place to pop to for more than just gifts or to add to a special dinner party. I come away with Modica chocolate, some Sicilian carob and almond biscuits and a jar of pistacchio cream. What exactly can I make with the nut cream, I ask Stefania. Easy, she says, spread on pancakes, add to whipped cream on any dessert, fill a sponge cake, add to a creme caramel or ice cream in the making. Or, as my son, says, just eat it out of the jar dolloped on toast! True to its roots as a general store, Colonial’s wares can be for everyday.
As I pause to pick up my bag before going, I notice the glass cabinet beneath the counter. It’s full of Venetian carnival masks. “Another of our passions,” explains Stefania. “In fact, we don’t sell them just for carnival. People buy them all year round for masked balls or as ornaments.” This old shop in St Paul’s Street has quite a few surprises inside. Just what you’d expect of a descendant of a Victorian General Store.
All images © Liz Ayling 2014
Colonial Store – more info
303, St Paul’s Street, Valletta, Malta
tel: +356 2122 4831 / mob: +356 7968 1229
Colonial Store on Facebook where you’ll find recipe ideas posted Mondays and Thursdays.
Director: Stefania Vella.
Note: Red Bistro visited this shop simply on a whim and out of curiosity. This write-up is not sponsored.