It often happens that a nation identifies itself with its traditional foods. When it comes to Italy it usually seems that only pasta and pizza are the cornerstones of what makes Italian food "Italian".
Things aren't quite that way.
There is a staple food of Northern Italy that doesn't usually get much recognition, but is rightfully to be considered the third part of the Italian food trinity: humble, yet versatile and satisfying polenta.
Many of Italy's more traditional dishes were born as food for the poor: in Italy, we call it cucina povera and every region, from Veneto to Sicily, knows it. Just as people of the South gathered the most of their energy from pasta, northeners would eat mainly polenta, a dish that has a history longer than that of both pizza and pasta.
Origins of Polenta
Polenta has been dubbed by some "Italian grits" and there are similarities to the dish so popular in the Southern United States. Indeed, polenta, grits and other "mush" type of foods share a common link as the food of poverty.
In ancient times, what would later be called polenta started out as one of the earliest and simplest foods deriving from cereals. Made from wild grains and later from primitive wheat, farro (a popular Italian cereals), millet, spelt or chickpeas, the grain was mixed with water to form a paste and was then cooked on a hot stone. In this way, early polenta may have pre-dated leavened bread, since yeasts were often hard to come by and milling techniques were not yet refined.
History of Polenta
In Roman times, polenta (or as they knew it, pulmentum) was a staple of the mighty Roman Legions, who would eat it in either a porridge or cake-like form, just as it happens today.
In Roman times, milling techniques had greatly improved and the coarsely ground flour favored for pulmentum had mostly been replaced by farina, a more thinly ground variety. However, even though bread was widely available in Ancient Rome, the legions and the poor alike preferred the simplicity and tastiness of their early polenta. For the next few centuries, nothing changed in the history of polenta, much like the living conditions of those who ate it most - the peasantry. However things would slowly improve for the dish, if not the peasantry - the first being the introduction of buckwheat into Italy by the Saracens.
This nutritive grain - known as grano saraceno - is still popular in Tuscany for making polenta and adds to the dish a distinctive flavor widely favored for centuries. Buckwheat polenta would eventually loose part of its popularity when a crop from the New World arrived in Italy, sometime in the 15th or 16th centuries: maize. The new crop was a perfect match for the farms of Northern Italy, where landowners could grow vast fields of corn for profit, while forcing the peasantry to subsist on cornmeal. This new form of polenta was abundant, but seriously lacking in nutrients compared to earlier forms of the dish.
However cornmeal polenta is very tasty and filling, and therefore continued to be a traditional dish long after conditions improved for the poor. Amazingly, this simple act of greed on the part of landowners helped shape a major component of Italian cooking. From then on, most of Italy's polenta was made from corn, which ranges in color from golden yellow to Veneto's white polenta.
In the world of cooking, few dishes have the stigma attached to their preparation as polenta. Much of Italy's polenta is still made the old-fashioned way, using a round bottom copper pot known as "paiolo" and a long wooden spoon known as a "tarello". The process to make soft polenta involves a 3 to 1 ratio of water and polenta and constant stirring for up to 50 minutes. Today in a modern kitchen with a good heavy pot, polenta preparation is not so painstaking, but it still does need attention and occasional stirring. Cooking polenta using a double boiler method is even easier. Of course you can find instant polenta today - but the less said about it, the better. Once cooked, polenta can be served as it is, soft and porridge like, or poured out onto a slab and allowed to cool to form a cake.
The key to the popularity of Polenta is its sheer versatility. It can be served with nearly anything and that is why it has spread to every corner of Italy, always making use of what is locally grown or raised. Soft polenta is often a replacement for bread during a meal, or instead of the pasta course, served with butter and cheese and possibly shaved truffles. Polenta can also be served as a contorno (side dish) to regional meat dishes such as Osso Bucco, waterfowl and fish. Polenta in cake form can be layered with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and baked.
It can also be grilled and served with Bruschetta-like toppings like mushrooms and tomatoes. Leftover polenta is also very versatile as it can be fried and covered in butter, melted lardo, or cheese. In many ways, polenta reflects the people who have relied upon it for so long - those long suffering peasants that had to make do with what they had. They have left Italian cooking the legacy of an eminently flavorful, filling and versatile dish known as polenta.
Defying its humble origin, now polenta is moving toward a new audience, the gourmet food restaurants and a higher-end class of clientele.
See also some recipes for polenta.
By Justin Demetri
Edited by Francesca Bezzone