Polenta: From Rags to Riches
Italy's cuisine can hold its own with any nation's. Yet, is has never worked its way away from the label of "peasant food" and rightfully so, it is not an insult, in many ways it is nothing short of a compliment that touches on the traditions and unevenly divided wealth that has been such a part of this storied land. Despite this distinction, the dish that is too often forgotten as a member of the peasantry trinity, along with pizza and pasta, is the one with perhaps the longest and most storied evolution. Simple, divine, humble polenta. Polenta is to the north of Italy what pasta is to the south.
The wonderful taste of today's polenta was in no small part inspired by greed. But that chapter will have to wait until the first grains to grace this dish are explained. Polenta's true beginnings began as no more than a mush, or porridge of medieval wheat, millet, faro, chickpeas, and water. With primitive milling techniques this course mix was often cooked on hot stones and certainly could not have been much more than a stop gap to the starvation that many of the northerners of Italy had to stave off each year. Polenta, with the scarcity of yeasts in pre-roman times may have even predated leavened breads in many parts of the countryside.
Throughout Roman times, despite the ready availability of bread, polenta was still consumed both by soldier and laborer alike. There was and is something familiar about this stodgy comfort food. Though during the times of the Roman empire there were advances in milling as well as the addition of a new ingredient, farina, a semi-nutritious flour that began overtaking the aforementioned grains in popularity. Farina, ultimately gave way to buckwheat. A gift from the Saracens, known in Italian as grano saraceno, still popular in the polentas of Tuscany. Saracen was a word Romans used to describe the non-arab dwellers of the deserts of Rome's province of Syria. This was the height of nutrition in polenta, for for all the manifestations and varied grains used through its history; buckwheat was the most nutritious and its use was responsible for a marked increase in the health of those who subsisted on it.
Somewhere in the 14th or 15th centuries polenta changed forever. It became less nutritious, yet tastier. An odd parallel can be drawn to the current dietary wasteland that many in the Western world now find themselves, and it comes from the same two-headed villain, corn and greed. Corn found it's way to Italy and immediately became a popular crop in the growing regions of the north. Farmers with land suited to its production were reaping huge profits while supplying their workers with a new taste made from the simple ground meal of their farmlands. Not unlike the heavily subsidized farmers of the United States' grain belt they fattened up their own people on less nutritious, tastier meals. Unlike their compatriots on the other side of the ocean whose corn goes into nearly everything bad for humankind, they gave the world polenta. Sweet, wonderful polenta.
Polenta really should only be prepared one way, slowly, with a 3 to 1 water to corn meal ratio, in a round copper bottomed pot (Paiolo), with a long wooden spoon (Tarello) used to stir it constantly for up to an hour. Okay, in this modern world you could probably use a double boiler, but fight this temptation, and never, not unlike a Southerner from the United States with their grits, use the instant product.
Polenta's uses either as a side dish or an integral part of a main course are too myriad to mention here. Cookbooks abound with uses of either soft polenta straight out of the paiolo or polenta spread and allowed to turn into a cake. It could even be cooled and grilled. These cookbooks run the gamut, from recipes 500 years old to today's five star restaurants owned by celebrities such as Mario Batali who are reinventing new ways to use this timeless classic.
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