Just behind the market in Victoria a little shop has slowly been reviving old recipes and traditional flavours before they are forgotten.

About It-Tokk

Just behind the market in Victoria a little shop has slowly been reviving old recipes and traditional flavours before they are forgotten. Sandra Aquilina drops in at It-Tokk Green Grocer and is charmed by the rows of jars with their promise of secret flavours.

They glisten from the depths inside the jars, rows and rows of jams, honey, fruit wines, sun-ripened products, shimmering with flavour. Fruity ambers, rich reds, deep greens and milky whites glow from inside the jars, filling the shelves, which heave with expectation. Every inch of space is packed with polished jars, their flavours packed tight, secrets yet to be discovered.

On the counter, stacks of shiny olives shimmer, drowned in a bath of garlic, oil and parsley while rows of gbejniet, some plain and white, others smothered in pepper, hard and tangy, sit beside them. There is a sense of richness of flavour, as the natural goodness and ripe luxury of Gozo’s traditional foods, once considered the domain of the humble has, in recent years been rediscovered in all its genuine strong flavours.

Outside, crates of fresh fruit and vegetables attract customers who wander past the market to explore the little shops behind. Here, behind the market’s daily bustle of activity, the little shops have been standing for decades, a part of the tableau which daily unfolds before them.

“Here I do not just watch life go by,” says Jimmy of It-Tokk Green Grocer. “I form a part of it… in summer I spend all my time here,” he says, “and I know all the news as soon as it happens…” he chuckles.

Jimmy has, in fact, been running the little shop for over 20 years when he moved to Gozo from Dingli and, the shop, inherited from his Gozitan wife’s side, stood there long before he took over. So much a part of the square is it that the shop was named It-Tokk after the main square, just as its name was changed to Independence Square. “At least now our name indicates that this square used to be called It-Tokk,” says Jimmy.

Although it started off as a greengrocer, It-Tokk’s central location meant that tourists would often ask us where they could find traditional products. Then Jimmy’s mother gave him six jars of homemade sundried tomatoes to sell in the shop. When they sold within a week, Jimmy started thinking of increasing amounts. Soon he and his wife were making and selling their own sundried tomatoes. “We started off by making six kilos,” says Jimmy. “Now we dry 3,000 kilos.”

Over the years in fact Jimmy has worked hard, increasing the types of traditional homemade products which he then sold to tourists searching for genuine local flavours. “Every year we came up with something new and now we have around 40 different products,” he says proudly, the jars glowing behind him.

All the products are made by Gozitan families within their homes, he says, all trusted families with whom he has worked for many years. “If any of our products run out I will not ask any other farmers to make some more for us,” he says, “I will just wait until the farmer I know can make some more.”

The families use traditional recipes to make the products which Jimmy tries carefully, ensuring quality. “If I do not like a new product myself then I figure out that others will not like it either,” he says simply.

A new product will sit on the shelves for a week, with Jimmy watching it with a careful eye to see how flavours and packaging are met. In this way his shelves now boast several products which are not found anywhere else and which are registered under his brand name, It-Tokk. So it is that the shelves are also weighed under with jars of deep green capers, their buds bursting with flavour, sweet dark sundried figs, naturally pressed, olive oils, glowing golden in their bottles, dark strong carob syrups, their tones rich and deep, jars of kunserva, made in the old-fashioned way and finally the jams, sweet and lush, with flavours such as bambinella, pomegranate and prickly pear.

“In summer, when most of the fruits are ripe, I take the fruit, ready crushed, to these families, so that they can start working on them,” he says. This often means that he has to work seven long days a week, as summer is also the busiest time for the little shop. By the time winter comes, Jimmy’s shelves are heaving with the glowing jars, their depths glistening with the goodness of the crushed fruit.

“When we started off, traditional homemade products were dying out and they were hard to find,” says Jimmy. “Old recipes and traditional methods were in danger of being forgotten,” he says. “In recent years, however, they have made a real comeback and now they are as popular as they used to be before,” he says. Sometimes tourists even go and eat a product they have just bought on a bench in the square outside the shop, he says.

Meanwhile, the fruit and vegetable side of his business ensures that activity in the little shop never flags, says Jimmy, as he pours me out a glass of pomegranate wine to taste. It tastes lovely and sweet, the pomegranate giving it an unusual edge. “We won three prizes for our wines at the Sta Marija fair,” says Jimmy proudly, taking a sip himself. It is evening and light is waning in the square outside, Jimmy will soon close for the day, dropping the shutter on the little shop with its glistening rows of secret flavours.