According to food-writer Frances Bissell, “food should tell you where you are”. Nowhere is this more evident than when dining at Ta’ Frenc. Once you enter the courtyard through the stone-arched gateway of the centuries-old building that is Ta’ Frenc, you see the herb garden, where scents of mint, basil, lavender, lemon balm, marjoram, thyme and many other varieties mingle with those of the climbing roses. The herb garden is not merely decorative, but plays an important role in the life of Ta’ Frenc and on warm evenings; guests can sit outside enjoying a pre-dinner flute of house champagne enjoying the scent of the herbs.
The plants have been sourced in Sicily and locally, under the guidance of a trained horticulturalist, choosing varieties which are adapted to the climate and soil of Gozo. The herbs are not only used for garnish, but to add flavour to dishes, both sweet and savoury. Any herb used must ‘play a part’ in the finished dish and because of that, great care is taken to choose the right herb for the dish; mint and fennel with fish, rosemary with rabbit, lavender with chocolate., lemon balm for the sorbet. Because herbs enhance the flavour of the dishes, this means that the chef can create simple, yet sophisticated sauces, without a heavy reliance on butter and cream. Chef Schembri makes his sauces with the cooking juices and enlivens them with the judicious flavouring of a herb, and perhaps a touch of wine or citrus juice.
Chef Schembri believes in sourcing local produce, working with farmers on Gozo for the supply of fruit and vegetables. Chickens, quails and rabbits are reared locally for the restaurant. The best fish and seafood from the Mediterranean is brought daily to the kitchen by local fishermen. The chef transforms them into exquisite dishes, which might include baked seafood rice with a foam of lobster bisque or thinly sliced fish marinated with extra virgin olive oil, fresh herbs and ginger. His rabbit ravioli has become a signature dish, and his version of the Maltese aljotta is exceptional. Indeed, the menu abounds with flavours of the Maltese islands.
Flambe cooking is one of the restaurant’s signatures, and spectacular dishes, both savoury and sweet, including the classic crepes Suzette, are prepared at your table by maitre d’hotel Joseph Tabone and his staff.
Bread is baked in-house, the sun-dried salt comes from salt pans in Xwejni, and the honey used to sweeten herbal infusions, prepared with freshly picked herbs from the garden, is pure Gozo honey. These details all add up to a unique dining experience that has become unmistakably Ta’ Frenc.
One of the most exciting developments for the restaurant is that the owners have made a considerable investment in olive trees. Imported several years ago from Sicily, these trees are now established in a new olive grove close to the restaurant. The first harvest, producing sufficient olives to press for oil, bearing in mind that it requires 4 to 6 kilos of olives to make 1 litre of extra virgin olive oil, is expected in 2008. Until it is possible to serve olive oil pressed from olives grown only on Gozo, the Ta’ Frenc ‘house’ olive oil is a very fine extra virgin olive oil specially imported from a single estate in Sicily.
Ta’ Frenc spells chic: its walls are adorned with original works of art by local artists and a collection of traditional Maltese clocks, and a lovely collection of decanters are displayed in niches along the walls. Its decor is a beautiful melange of traditional and modern – the older part of the restaurant was a farmhouse and the animals’ mangers are still visible. An extensive and award-winning wine list, with bottles housed in a stunningly-designed cellar, which is available for private dining, offers wines from local vineyards as well as from around the world, with an emphasis on the great wines of Bordeaux. The latest innovation, a first for the Maltese islands, is house champagne bottled especially for Ta’ Frenc by the prestigious house of Boize!.
The fresco in the wine cellar is by Italian artists who were brought purposely here to create the image of Bacchus on the wall. The cellar beautifully preserves 700 different labels of wines in perfect climatic conditions – this has earned the restaurant the prestigious award of best wine list by Malta’s guide to restaurants. A large banquet table in the middle of the cellar is elegantly set for special dinners. In fact Ta’ Frenc also caters for organised events such as large dinners, small weddings and receptions.