No Rennies till Huggins: A Culinary Tour of the Island of Malta

Malta, an island of history, culture, natural beauty and one of the best diving destinations in the Mediterranean. However what about food? Malta is not generally well known for its cuisine but from gigantic heart stopping pancakes full of chocolate to stewed up bunnies the size of labradors full of tiny bones, Malta has been criminally overlooked in this department.

So come with me as I take you on a gastronomic journey across the island. Well, Paceville, well more like the immediate area around Huggins Pub and the Gozo ferry terminals.

We begin our journey at Chequers. Chequers is just down the road from Huggins pub and might possibly be connected to a lapdancing club although it’s difficult to tell. It is also right next door to Chick King which is THE destination for breaded, doorstop sized slabs of fibrous battery hen. Step up to the glowing lights and choose your pancake- sweet or savoury. For me it’s sweet every time. I order a nutella and white chocolate pancake with crushed nuts and bananas. The pancroupier or whatever he’s called then ladles out half a pint of batter with the consistency of wallpaper paste onto a giant hotplate, expertly he spreads it out into a perfect circle and then waits for the half centimetre thick layer of flour, egg and lard to solidify. Taking out a trowel he then slathers on a frankly insane quantity of nutella and liquid white chocolate, empties a feed bag of crushed nuts on top and slices on a banana before handing it over. You now have in your hand 500% of your daily recommended sugar intake in the form of a wrap of batter filled with white hot chocolate. Mmmmmm

Bedtime and soon you’ll be looking forward to breakfast, if you can ever eat again. Morning comes and you sit down to a fine continental spread of mechanically separated ham and laughing cow cheese triangles served up with cake and eggs with grey yokes. But don’t get too full now. There’s still lunch to come.

Today we’re diving on Gozo, a beautiful island with 2 of the most magical dives in Malta, the Blue Hole and the Inland Sea but to get there we have to take the Ferry, a 30 min crossing with just enough time to get yourself a coffee and a wudy. Calm down ladies, a wudy is a traditional delicacy consisting of the bastard son of a frankfurter and a cheap sausage with just the requisite percentage of pork connective tissue* to be deemed as such entombed within a greasy parcel of synthetic pastry. I can still remember taking a bite out of my first wudy and watching in horror as 2/3rds of livid, grub white, sausage cadaver slipped from it’s pastry coffin onto the plate. I still ate it though.

The Blue hole and the Wudy sausage

Beauty comes in many guises

Once the diving is complete it’s time for an evening meal and this is where the challenge begins. Huggins pub exerts a gravitational pull on divers so great that it has it’s own event horizon and trying to extract divers from it’s orbit for dinner is an almost impossible task. Now don’t get me wrong, I love Huggins, love a cheeky half of Cisk after a dive and love spending an evening seated outside off gassing with the dive crew but I have difficulty shaking off the memory of the seafood pizza which when it arrived consisted of a pizza burned at the edges but still wet and soggy in the middle due to the small pile of fish slurry sitting in the centre that had the appearance of being swept off the floor of a trawler and then dumped in the centre of the pizza. Maxim ate it all despite my running commentary on every bite which still shocks me slightly to this day.

So instead we decide to venture further afield and head to Avenue one of the most famous restaurants in the area. Now Avenue is brilliant, here portion control is a dirty word and the main aim of the restaurant is to feed the customer with more meat than they ever thought it possible to consume. I have now eaten the ribs at this place 7 times and it never disappoints. You are served up a  gigantic plate of juicy, delicious ribs, laughably they also supply side orders that sit lonely and untouched in the middle of the table as you tackle the Desperate Dan sized meal in front of you. Amazing food and incredible value, does anyone want to go there now?

Ribs in Avenue

Me enjoying my second instalment

Other options for evening meals include the Emperor of India a seriously good curry house and also Gozitan which serves traditional Maltese food. Our last trip to Malta witnessed a slight misstep with restaurant choice when we went somewhere with a traditional maltese menu that consisted of lots of badly cooked animals full of miniscule bones that meant you spent lots of time chewing gingerly and extracting foreign objects from your mouth. Gozitan, however, is really good. Here they serve a feast menu that consisted of so much food that we were forced to use it for a different purpose:

Food at Gozitan

Never play with your food.

So there we have it, Malta has everything calorific the weary diver could need. In fact I could go for a chequers right now….

 

*There are various laws concerning the meat content of sausages in the UK. The minimum meat content to be labelled Pork Sausages is 42% (30% for other types of meat sausages), although to be classed as meat, the Pork can contain 30% fat and 25% connective tissue. Often the cheapest supermarket pork sausages do not have the necessary meat content to be described as Pork Sausages and are simply labelled ‘Sausages’. These typically contain MRM which under EU law can no longer be described as meat

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Focus on Advanced

Ah, the Advanced Course. Never before has a simple case of semantics led to so many bitter recriminations. When the Roman legions of PADI invaded the shores of Brittania in 1991, the barbarian BSAC hordes engaged them in a bitter and bloody battle. The war was fought predominantly over what was meant by the term advanced diver: From the BSAC’s point of view an advanced diver was an individual with 10,000 logged dives, a home-made drysuit and at least 5 confirmed kills to their name. From the PADI perspective, an advanced diver was someone who knew that the inflator valve is not an ‘up button’ and who could put their own equipment together with only minimal assistance. The horrors of that conflict still remain fresh in the memories of it’s survivors.

The great war of PADI vs BSAC

The legions of PADI square off to the BSAC horde

So ultimately who was right? Well as is often the case in war the answer was neither and both sides were made to shake hands and say sorry like they meant it. The problem was all due to interpretation: In the UK to call yourself advanced at anything implies expertise and years of experience whereas in the States to be advanced means to have simply progressed beyond the basic level. Apparently. I’m not sure if that’s true, I haven’t done any research and it’s possibly offensive to a large group of people but it sounds good, quick someone make me the editor of the Daily Mail.

Daily Mail Front Page

A standard Daily Mail Front Page

So what I’m kind of driving at here is that the Advanced Course isn’t perhaps the best name for the course but please don’t let that put you off. The actual ethos behind the course is that you simply extend your experience and skill level whilst under the supervision of an instructor. The Advanced Course actually runs very well back to back with the Open Water Course and it certainly isn’t necessary to go and do loads of dives before signing up. I did my Open Water and Advanced back to back and it didn’t do me any harm. Someone said I had quite good buoyancy control once.

So what does the course entail? The best part of the Advanced Course is that it really is centred around fun diving. There’s no classroom or swimming pool stuff just 5 open water dives where you’ll work on a range of skills. The idea is that you complete 2 core dives: Deep and Navigation and then 3 others. There is a choice but we generally find that Drysuit, Peak Performance Buoyancy, Wreck and Moto Service Station Forager work best. A typical course runs as follows:

Day one is where we complete the shallower dives. We usually start off with the drysuit dive (if you’ve already qualified as a drysuit diver we often substitute this for Search and Recovery). This dive focuses on buoyancy skills in a drysuit and gets you used to moving in and diving the suit. This is then followed up with the peak performance buoyancy dive which is another dive based around buoyancy skills. We find that running these 2 dives first really helps you to get to grips with the drysuit as well as preparing you for the rest of the course.

Dive 3 is the navigation dive. This expands on some of the basic compass skills from the open water course (but don’t worry, we’re not asking you to become underwater orienteers) as well as getting you thinking about natural navigation.

On day 2 we progress to some deeper dives. You start, unsurprisingly, with the deep dive where we’ll take you down to 30m. Whilst you’re down there you’ll look at how different objects and colours are affected by pressue and if you’re really lucky your instructor will show you the potato trick! Once that dive is complete you’ll finish the course doing a wreck dive, this is really now just a fun dive where you’ll bring all your skills together.

Advanced Course Malta

Divers on an Advanced course in Malta

As a final bonus because you’ve done a drysuit dive as part of the course you are able to do a final dive at the end of the day to qualify you as a drysuit diver. In fact this extends to all the dives on the course, they all count as dive one of the speciality course so you can extend your experience from there.

 The  last dive is then conducted at a motorway service station on the way home when you’ll have an opportunity to show your instructor how much health food you can find and consume in 15min period.

So there we have it, the Advanced course is really just about extending your skills and confidence as well as qualifying you to dive to 30m ( a very handy skill when it comes to exploring some of the cool wreck dives around the world and in this country). We run regular courses every other weekend, so give us a shout if you would like to join us!

Ditch the fins, grab the trainers

I’m sure you’ve all heard of Project Aware. In case you haven’t, it’s a charity that aims to raise awareness of why and how we should protect our oceans. They’re currently focusing in on two major issues: Marine Debris and Sharks in Peril. As divers, we thought it would be great to do a DLL club event to raise money for this amazing charity.

So we decided to ditch our fins (just for a day), grab our trainers and do a fun run! As we’re based in Battersea we were pleased to find a Fun Run taking place practically on our doorstep, Clapham Common, so no excuses! It’s taking place on 15 July and there are a number of different distances: 2k (for kids), 5k, 10k and 15k. We’re looking to put a DLL team together to take part on the day. Don’t worry if you’re not an avid runner as this event is open to complete beginners through to elites.

We’ll set up a Just Giving website that we can all use to gather donations. There’s been suggestions that we should complete the run in full scuba gear….but we think maybe a mask & snorkel will do!

So if you’re interested in joining our team, then please get in touch for more info!

Please sponsor us!

Supplier Open Day – try before you buy

Apeks, Aqua Lung, Whites and their specially selected partners will be visiting Vobster on 11/12 July.  We are now a premier Whites dealer and we think their new drysuits are amazing, but don’t just take our word for it!  If you go to Vobster on 11/12 July you’ll be able to try them out for yourselves and actually go for a dive in one.  Let us know if you’re thinking about heading down that weekend and we’ll meet you there!

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Whites Drysuit Test Dive

In recent years diving manufacturers have begun to cotton onto the fact that functionality is not the be all and end all of product design. This is probably in part to much more stringent safety standards making it far harder for consumers to buy regulators that breathe like sucking a Maccie Ds thick shake through a cocktail straw. So belatedly the dive industry is catching up with cool sports like surfing, just with more bacon and less tiresome pontificating about how falling off a piece of fibreglass a lot makes you at one with the ocean.

Sometimes a product comes along that solves a problem in a novel way and changes the way you think about a style of equipment. The Whites Drysuit definitely appears to be one of those products that as well as making you look like you’re wearing a Starfleet uniform (this is a good thing in case you were wondering) also functions in a totally different way to any other Drysuit.

James in a Whites drysuit

James rocks the Whites look at the inland sea in Malta

We became a Whites premier dealer a couple of months back pretty much on the basis of how cool the product was but it wasn’t until last weekend that I finally got to give one a go.  We were out in Malta and about to head into the water for Drysuit dive one. James, Dick and Chantal were all about to give their suits a first go in open water when Nev from Divewise wandered up and asked whether I’d like to try his.

It’s sometimes a little tricky selling dive equipment in that it’s impossible for you to be able to try everything you sell in the shop before selling it to customers so sometimes you worry that a product won’t be as good as it should be and the thought ran through my mind; what if I didn’t like the suit….Still I decided to man up and find the inner strength to go and play with new diving equipment so I suited up.

First of all what makes the suit a bit different from the others? Well, the suit has 2 layers, an internal waterproof membrane and an outer skin. The inner layer is essentially a survival bag with the standard Drysuit neck and wrist seals and socks, the outer skin attaches by Velcro to the inner bag.

The idea is that the inner bag is very large and loose meaning it can accommodate a very wide range of sizes. The outer skin (which comes in 3 different styles, ‘Sport skin’, ‘Tec skin’ and the brilliantly named ‘Bullet skin’) is made of lycra or neoprene and this shrinks the bag onto the wearer and streamlines the suit as well as offering an outer protective layer.

Close up on Whites suit

A close up on the cool zip and logo

The upshot of all this is that the suits will fit just about anyone, there are 4 sizes and the only limiting factor is height. To give you an idea, Nev’s suit fit me perfectly and Nev and I are not similar sizes… This means the suit fits fine whether you’ve got a thin baselayer on underneath or a heavy duty thick Halo undersuit.  The added advantage is that should you suddenly balloon in weight after one too many deco burgers at the dive site the suit will still fit fine.

The suit is a little bit harder to put on if you’re used to just pulling your Drysuit on like waders, there’s a technique to getting it on over the hips but once that’s on the suit is easy to zip up yourself.

I was now all zipped in and feeling as cool as it’s possible to be with another man’s pee valve pushed up against your thigh. It was time to get in the water and find out how the suit performed.

The first thing you notice about the suit is the flexibility. Put simply, it’s amazing. At one point as I was swimming along I decided to try and reach my valves. Given that I have been ‘blessed’ with long monkey arms I don’t normally struggle much with this skill but I was able to hold onto the manifold with both hands at the same time without issue. You also have a full range of movement more so than any other suit I’ve dived in. The manufacturers claim it feels like a wetsuit and I can see what they mean.

The second thing you quickly notice is that you don’t get any sensation of large volumes of air moving through the suit. Normally when you bring your feet up, the air in the suit moves quickly to the boots and you become  buoyant. In the whites suit you can feel the air moving slowly through the channels where the bag is wrinkled up under the skin. I found this meant I had to add a little more air to get my feet up behind me but then as you ascend the skin pushes the air through the suit and it vents so I found that I hardly ever had to vent large amounts of air from the suit on ascent. The shoulder dump is also in the perfect position to dump air as well. It really does make the suit a joy to dive in.

Divers underwater

James in the suit underwater (he’s on the left!)

So negatives? Well the boots are rubbish. I think we all came to the same conclusion on the trip and we’ll be looking at just using a simple rock boot instead of the fusion boots. They’re a nice idea but they just don’t really work unfortunately. However it’s a minor issue in what is an otherwise brilliant suit. I’ll be getting one in time for our Croatia trip because the final massive winner with these suits is how light they are. The sport skin version weighs only 2.5kg, considerably less than most of other suits.

All in all a really great bit of kit and I’ll be looking forward to receiving mine soon!

Deptherapy

I know that several of you within DLL are interested in the work of the UK Deptherapy and working towards becoming Disabled Divers international Instructors.  Working with the injured troops is absolutely amazing, humbling and emotional experience and requires not only the advanced technical skills to help disabled people to dive, but also requires the ability to cope with the emotional problems many of the rehabilitating troops have.  I cannot hope to understand what it is like to be one minute a fit, young man/woman serving in our Armed services and the next you remember waking up in the Queen Elizabeth hospital having suffered life changing injuries. Matt Croucher GC one of our patrons threw himself on a grenade to save the life of his fellow patrol members; how do you find the courage to do that?

Team

Richard, Carlos, Chris and Matt Croucher GC with Virgin Atlantic Staff at Heathrow

On the programme running from 1-8 May 2012 we had three British troops and three US Marines.  I visited Chris Middleton a trooper from the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards not long after is admission to Headley Court rehabilitation centre.  Chris at the age of 20 had lost one leg above and one leg below the knee as a result of an IED explosion in Afghanistan.  The second British participant was Richard Ward a trooper from the Household Cavalry who lost both legs below the knee when the vehicle he was travelling in hit an IED.  Carlos Buckley formerly of the Royal Military Police made up the last member of the group.  Carlos was mentoring an Afghan Police Unit when they were ambushed, Carlos was shot three times in the side and one bullet severed his spine leaving him paralysed from the waist down.

We try to give the troops a unique experience and one that makes them feel good about themselves.  So we aim to provide a very special service from their arrival at Heathrow airport until they return to the airport a week later.

This programme was quite special as we were joined by three journalists from British Forces Broadcasting Service, Diver Magazine and the Sun newspaper.  Fiona Weir of the BFBS joined Matt Croucher GC, the British troops and me on Virgin Atlantic’s flight VS005 from Heathrow to Miami on 1 May.  The guys were met as ever by Metropolitan Police Service officers from the Aviation Security Division and of course the charming ground staff of Virgin Atlantic who had managed to up-grade the party to premium economy.  The troops presented the Met Police and the Virgin Staff with certificates of appreciation.  It was then off to the Virgin Lounge for breakfast and we were last to board, with the cabin crew announcing that the guys were on the flight.  Chris is struggling with his new legs and removed them in flight as did Richard.  A question from Chris ‘What is the difference between economy and premium economy?’ reply ‘extra leg room for one thing’, Chris ‘Well I don’t actually need that!’

I guess towards the end of the flight I experienced one of the most emotional moments of my life.  Chris wanted to try to put his legs back on for the landing but there wasn’t enough space and I arranged with the cabin crew we could do this on one of their jump seats.  Rather than wait for the small wheelchair on board I piggy backed Chris the relatively short distance down the plane.  I was amazed how light he was, but for many on the plane it was the first time they realised the extent of his injuries.  You could hear the gasps, sobs and tears of passengers as we passed.  Fiona Weir said that emotion swept over her when she saw Chris on my back.  I know Chris was quite touched by the response but Chris, being Chris as we transferred him to a wheelchair at Miami airport in front of the porters, Virgin crew and our reception committee said ‘Make sure you put the foot rests down.’  Everyone burst out laughing with Chris chuckling away to himself.

Diver

Chris in Jacob’s Community Pool

The usual Miami reception committee was there; Miami Dade Police, TSA, Customs, Immigration and we were whisked through the formalities to our SUVs flanked  by Miami Dade Police cars.  So off to Key Largo where I met up with my fellow DDI instructor Doug Grubb and his son Lloyd who was a US Marine who suffered Traumatic Brain Injury (the violent shaking of the brain).  The US Marines consisted of Todd Love (check this guy out on Goggle he is awesome) he lost both legs to the hip joints (pelvis) and part of his left arm, Kevin who has an injured back, Brian a single above the knee amputee, all supervised by a Marine Master Sergeant Eric.

The rapport that developed between the two groups was amazing and it made managing the logistics easy.  I need to make special mention of Fiona Weir and Dorothy Eaton, from Diver Group who really added so much to the trip and integrated so well into all our activities.

Day 2 saw us kitting up at Horizon Divers our new dive provider in Key Largo, an awesome set up with a very stable catamaran as the dive platform.  As usual we were hosted by various organisations and businesses over the next few days, and I seem to recall wigs and bikinis, but maybe the less said, the best forgotten!

Day 2 was at Jacobs Community Pool and all the guys took to the water like ducklings.  Carlos had the biggest challenge being paraplegic and therefore his legs were dead weight even in the water.  Weighting plans had to be designed for Carlos and the amputees.  Chris in particular needed quite a complex plan to hold him upright in the water.  Think about this our legs often hold us upright in the water, if you lose some of your leg(s) you lose some of your negative buoyancy.  With Chris’ injuries you have to balance more negative buoyancy on one side of the body. However they all did brilliantly and the only questions seemed to be how quickly they could get in the ocean.  Richard had a pair of artificial legs that he could use with fins but found he was better in the water when not using them.

I was the lead instructor for Chris and Richard and as bi-lateral amputees they had an instructor each. Todd had an instructor and an assistant instructor.

The first ocean dive was observed by Sun newspaper reporter Paul Thompson who described the huge smile on Richard’s face when he broke the surface after the first dive.  My lasting memory will be Chris giggling in an absolutely uninhibited way after he rolled into the ocean and surfaced, repeating the giggling when he surfaced at the end of the dive.  Everyone loved the dive and all you could hear was talk of what they might experience on dives 2&3.  Instructors have to work out how to enter their student into the ocean and then how to exit them.  Carlos for instance needed a specially designed lift to bring him back on the boat.  Most of the time the troops need de-kitting in the sea.

Amputees also feel the cold more quickly than able bodied people because of poorer circulation around the site of their injury.  In Chris’ case we needed to put him in a full length 3mm wet-suit and then turn over the extra leg length and clip it closed.

Socially these guys were in a class of their own and local residents and holidaymakers alike embraced them with the warmth and generosity we have come to expect in the Keys.  For the Brits the standing ovations they received when they entered places such as the VFW with their American comrades in arms was humbling and emotional.

All too quickly dives 2&3 had come and gone some awesome diving with some awesome young men who it was my absolute privilege to meet.

Other activities such as fishing and the hiring of a shooting range and providing guns and ammunition that most have cost a fortune were kindly sponsored by Dave Champagne of Key Dives.

So home to Heathrow to be met by Virgin staff and the Met Police, no long waits for the guys as we are whisked through immigration and customs.

A centre page spread in the Sun, three broadcasts on BFBS and an article to follow in Diver magazine an impressive range of media interest made this special – however am I as Paul Thompson described me in the Sun a ‘scuba fanatic’?

Chris and Richard have decided they want to go forward and do their PADI OW Courses.  PADI will sponsor their manuals, PICs etc; all I need now is a friendly dive centre to provide a pool and kit for them free, I will teach them and after their confined water course it will be off to my place in Egypt to complete their Open Water dives.  Fiona is going to continue to cover their story as is Dot.

How do I feel after the programme? Humbled and privileged to meet a group of very brave young men who have no chips on their shoulders and want to live life to the full despite injuries that many would never cope with.

You can find out more about our work at http://www.deptherapy.co.uk or join the Deptherapy Facebook page.

And yes you make some great friends, shed some tears but you give these guys and gals something very special, a new challenge and the feeling of being able to move freely again.

Richard Cullen