Sunday, October 2, 2011

Polenta - The Poor Man's Food

Everyone in the Province of Piacenza in Emilia Romagna has a polenta story to tell. Cheap to grow, easy to cook and versatile, it was the staple food of the poor, the essence of Italian cucina povera. 

Romano Bersani, a 74-year-old farmer who has lived in the province his whole life, epitomizes the attitude of many of the locals. Polenta was the daily staple, eaten for lunch and then again for dinner, sometimes condito [dressed] with a little pancetta or cheese, sometimes without. It really depended whether anything extra was to hand. His mother cooked it in the traditional copper pot (a paiolo) over the fire. Once it was ready the family would gather round the table and the polenta was poured directly onto a large round wooden chopping board which was placed centre table. “Simplice”, Romano recalls, “ma Dio, era buona!” (Simple, but God it was good!). ‘Food tasted better back then’, he adds with a characteristic fondness, ‘but then … we were hungrier’.

Romano Bersani, the farmer

Polenta was the name originally given in Italy to any pulse or grain cooked to a mush-like porridge. Originally it may well have been made with chestnuts or even pearl barley and records suggest it dated back to the time of the Romans. Polenta as we know it today, however, is made from maize and its culinary history is much more recent.  Maize, or gran turco as it was known, was discovered from the New World and was first cultivated in the north of Italy some time in the late 16th century. By the 18th century it was established throughout the north of the country as the staple food of the poor classes.

Polenta comes in all sorts of grades. The modern-day 5-minute polenta is increasingly popular with households where time is limited. However, true polenta aficionados eschew ‘instant’ polenta in favour of traditional varieties which require at least 45 minutes cooking time. It’s an arduous procedure as the polenta needs constant stirring. It’s said that the polenta is ready when it becomes so thick that the spoon stands straight up, unsupported.

Once cooked, the polenta is dressed [condito]. How it is dressed will depend very much upon where in Italy you happen to be. In the province of Piacenza in Emilia Romagana a traditional favourite is polenta e cicccioli (polenta cooked with a rich mix of vegetables [known as a soffritto] cooked in pork fat). Usually the polenta is made, allowed to cool until it hardens, sliced and then grilled. Polenta and salt cod is another popular dish throughout the north of Italy.

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