Corn or maize, imported to Europe from America in the 16th century, gives polenta its typical yellow color, whereas before the introduction of corn it was darker, made mostly with spelt or rye, and later also with buckwheat grain, imported from Asia.
The flour is poured "a pioggia" (like rain) into boiling salted water in a "paiolo" (copper pot), and stirred with a "cannella", wooden hazel stick, for at least an hour. It's ready, according to tradition, when "la cannella sta su" (the stick remains standing on its own if left in the pot). Polenta is then poured on a wooden plank and served, depending on its texture, with a spoon, or made into slices with a wooden knife or with a cotton thread from bottom to top.
Some researchers [Sonnante, Hammer, Pignone "From the cradle of agriculture in handful of lentils: history of domestication", Rendiconti Lincei, 2009, 20: 21-37] argue that the "puls" was originally a mixture that included legume seeds. To this regard it should be noted that, especially in some regions of Southern Italy, a polenta is still in use made from broad beans accompanied with such vegetables as chicory.
The first documented cultivation of maize in Northern Italy dates back to Lovere, in Valcamonica. Gabriele Rosa ["La Valle Camonica nella Storia", San Marco, Esine 1978, p. 156-157] argues that the cultivation of maize was introduced in Lovere in 1638, for the first time in Italy. M. Compagnoni ["Costa Volpino", ed S. Vincenzo, Clusone 1976, p. 189], attributed the introduction of this crop to Pietro Gajoncelli, who in 1658 imported the first grains of corn from the Americas.
What is certain is that, starting from the late 17th century, cornmeal was to surpass chestnut flour in the daily consumption of the inhabitants of Valcamonica. Lino Ertani ["Vita camuna di un tempo"] mentions a report from the parish priest of the village of Darfo, dated July 10, 1741, who wrote: "The village of Darfo consists of 784 souls... of these, most in the morning eat polenta and a good part of them again eat it in the evening."
Polenta varieties - Northern Italy
"Polenta taragna", or simply "taragna", is a recipe typical of Valtellina and Lecco, well known also in Valcamonica, Brescia, the area of Bergamo and Valle d'Aosta. Its name comes from the tarai or "tarell", a long stick used to stir inside the copper pot. Like other polenta recipes of the Lombard mountains, as the "pulenta vüncia" or "uncia" (=greasy), it is prepared with a mixture containing buckwheat flour, which gives its typical dark color, unlike most other regions where only corn flour is used. Cheese is usually incorporated into the taragna during cooking.
The "polenta cròpa" is a variant of taragna, originally from Val d'Arigna, in Valtellina: it is cooked in cream, completely made with brown flour and with the addition of cheese.
The "pulenta uncia" is typical in the areas of Lake Como. After preparing the polenta in the pot with a mixture of corn flour and buckwheat, it is mixed with a soffritto made of plenty of butter, garlic and sage with semüda or other medium-fat alpine cheese to get a homogeneous mixture.
The "polenta e bruscitti" is a typical dish of Varese and the upper area of the province of Milan, the bruscitti being beef finely chopped, long cooked with wild fennel seeds and wine.
The "pult" is a very soft polenta prepared always in the area of Lake Como by mixing corn flour and wheat, common especially in the summer and eaten dipped into cold milk.
The "polenta concia" is one of the most typical dishes of Biella and Val d'Aosta. Very suitable on cold days, it is also known as "polenta grassa" (fat). At the end of cooking, to this polenta, which is very fluid, can be added melted Alpine cheese or cubes of fontina or butter.
The "pulëinta consa" of the area of Piacenza consists of thin layers of polenta covered with tomato sauce, alternating with a generous sprinkling of Grana Padano.
The "polenta con i ciccioli" is widespread in most of northern Italy. The ciccioli are obtained from pork fat tissue, separated from the rind and diced, put to simmer for at least three hours in copper pots or steel, so as to let all the fat melt and water evaporate. The ciccioli can be cooked with the polenta, adding them to the preparation at different stages of cooking, or added into a slice of polenta, as in the case of "pulenta e grepule", typical of Mantua.
In areas of southern Trentino a potato polenta is also prepared with ingredients that enrich flavor. Potatoes cut in cubes are cooked in salted water, then pressed or blended, adding buckwheat flour or mixed flours. Towards the end of cooking, chunks of salami, cheese, fried onions and other ingredients can be added.
In Tossignano, a small town in Romagna, since the early 17th century there has been a tradition to prepare each year a special polenta to be distributed to the population. It is a yellow polenta, made with a mixture of corn flour, typically 50% fine-grained to 50% coarse-grained. It is served "hard", cut into cubes with cotton yarn, topped with pork and beef ragout smell and a generous spread of Grana cheese.
The "polenta bianca", typical of Polesine and areas of Padua, Venice and Treviso, is made with a white variety of maize.
The "polenta all'erba amara" (with bitter herbs) typical of the area of Mantua, is prepared with corn flour, butter, erba di San Pietro (=costmary) and grated parmesan.
Polenta varieties - Central and Southern Italy
In the countryside, the "polenda allargata" was common, which was a relatively dense polenta, spread on a moistened tablecloth to form a layer less than a centimeter thick, on which sauce was added, typically meat or mushrooms; everyone would then take his part in spoonfuls or more often forkfuls competing to see who "cleaned up" his own "area" first.
In Lazio and all over central Italy, polenta is traditionally consumed with two kinds of sauce both enriched with grated pecorino cheese: either a tomato sauce with pork ribs and sausages, or a white sauce which is a soffritto of garlic, olive oil, chili, guanciale or sausage, and bacon. There are variations in the different provinces: for example, in Ciociaria the sauce is made of sausages and ribs and half of the sausages are liver; also, part of the polenta is not covered with the sauce, but with casserole broccoli.
The "polenta fritta", typical of Ciociaria and Lazio, is also widespread in Tuscany, Umbria, Marche and Campania. In Naples, fried polenta triangles or rectangles called "scagliozzi" are typical of Neapolitan "poor cuisine" and are sold as croquettes.
The "frascatula", typical of Basilicata, but also Sicily and Calabria, is made with cornmeal, potato and lard, and topped with a tomato sauce, or cotechino, or sausage, and also accompanied by mulled wine.
Polenta varieties - Sardinia
In ancient times the Romans used to eat a polenta of barley and farro, and during their occupation of Sardinia, between 238 BC and the 456 AD, they transformed the Campidano plain into fields for the cultivation of grain products, so much so that Sardinia came to be known as the "granary of Rome."
In more recent times, wheat still remains the main cereal of this traditional dish of the island, although chestnuts and acorns were also used, or other products as oats and rye during the Middle Ages, and later rice. The Sardinian cornmeal polenta is accompanied by sausage, pecorino cheese, lean bacon and such vegetables as garlic, onion, carrot, celery, parsley, to flavor.
Pairing wines with polenta
Proverbs on polenta
- Li separa il filo della polenta - they are separated by a polenta thread (=they are very similar)
- Donare gli ossi della polenta - donate polenta bones (meaning someone is very stingy)
- Mescolare la polenta con le dita e poi lamentarsi che scotta - use your fingers to stir polenta and then complain that it's hot (meaning someone is very stupid)
- A chi ne' campi sul lavoro stenta, son manna le cipolle e la polenta - for those who work hard in the fields, onions and polenta are a godsend
- La pulenta la cuntenta - polenta makes you happy (filled up).
- Magnàr polenta cò 'na man sòla - eat polenta with just one hand; it means that one is very poor, since he has nothing, cheese or other, in the other hand to accompany the polenta.
- I faxúi e la polenta i é la carne de la dente poareta. Beans and polenta are the meat of the poor.
- Pulëinta e lat ingràsan il cülat - polenta and milk make buttocks fat.
- Loda la polenta e mangia il pane - praise polenta, but eat bread.
- La pulenta, presto tira e presto 'llenta - polenta fills you quickly but is quickly digested.
- Last but not least, the cultural difference between Northern and Southern Italians is remarked with two negative, anti-ethnic epithets: "polentoni" (polenta eaters) for the inhabitants of the north and "terroni" (agricultural workers) for those of the south.