Polenta Traditions and Memories

Polenta is an ancient traditional Italian dish of togetherness in the wintertime. The most commonly used basic cereal is maize, which gives it its characteristic yellow color, imported into Europe from the Americas in the 15th century. Before then, the polenta was darker and was made mainly with spelt or rye, and later also with buckwheat, imported from Asia.
Known in its various variations almost on the whole Italian soil, in the past it has constituted the basic food of poor cuisine in various northern areas of Lombardy, Veneto, Valle d'Aosta, Piedmont, Liguria, Trentino, Emilia-Romagna and Friuli-Venezia Giulia, regions where it is still widespread, and is traditionally cooked in the winter months also in Tuscany and in the mountain areas of Marche, Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise.

Cooking the polenta

Maize flour "polenta" is made with very fine flour, passed through a flour sieve before cooking. Place the pot, possibly in copper, on the fire with enough water. When the water boils, pour a small quantity of cold water, a little salt, and start dropping the flour "rain-like", letting it pass through the fingers of your left hand, while stirring continuously with a proper, possibly wooden, mixer or spoon with your right hand. Go on like this with great patience and slowly, never ceasing stirring so as to avoid clumps. Now and then with a wooden spoon detach the polenta from the pot walls and from the wooden spoon. As soon as reach the right density stop adding flour (if in doubt as to the right density, just stop, you can always add some more later if the polenta is too liquid), go on always stirring and cooking until the polenta detaches from the walls (one-two hours).

Thoroughly clean and wipe the wooden board used to make pasta. You will also have prepared the preferred sauce. When the polenta is well cooked, pour it down on the board. With the wooden spoon spread it quickly until still hot in a thin, regular layer all over and season with ragout or other sauce, and lots of grated "pecorino" cheese.

Seasoning for the Polenta

Polenta is seasoned with great variety of sauces. Moreover, left-over polenta can be heated the day after in a pan with oil, garlic and peperoncino or, if left without sauce, barbecued and used in the place of bread.
  • In Fontavignone it is cooked in milk, in the period of Lent it is seasoned only with oil, garlic and red pepper. The most traditional seasoning is however a pork meat ragout, made with tomatoes, minced meat, small pork chops, sausages.
  • In Pereto, a village on top of a hill under a high tower, it is seasoned with snail sauce. Elsewhere also with a so called "fake sauce" (the sauce of poor people without meat, the "poor sauce" as they say in Tuscany).
  • In Pettorano sul Gizio (where women until not very long ago wore a costume using a white linen cloth folded in a peculiar triangular fashion as a head cover) on New Year's Eve a polenta festival is held, which should better be called however a sausage festival, since the polenta is only a kind of surface where the tasty local sausages are placed.
  • Another perfect seasoning is the "white sauce" made with mushrooms and sausages: the sausages are peeled, fragmented and passed in a pan then the previously cooked mushrooms are added with some broth in case, and everything is thoroughly mixed.

History of Polenta

The history of polenta is the history of our people. A very ancient dish, in remote times it was made with poor cereals or beans, until maize came from America. Ancient polenta in the area of Teramo, called "fracchiata", was a Whitsuntide dish. It was made with the flour of red ceci beans, of beans or cicerchie (poor beans almost no more grown), and was seasoned with raw oil, or with a onions fried in oil, or with salted sardines, made in pieces and browned in oil.

The highest point in the polenta tradition is to consume it on the wooden board, placed on the common table with all the family around, like it was at the time of the traditional patriarchal families. Polenta is eaten, if spread on a dish, in a circle starting from the outer part and proceeding all around until the final little piece in the center is reached. If all are eating on the spianatoia, each one proceeds consuming the slice in front and moving towards the center (or sideways towards a sausage).

Polenta marchigiana - painting by Cesare Peruzzi
"Polenta marchigiana", 1927. Painting by Cesare Peruzzi (Montelupone 1894 - Recanati 1995). Watercolour and tempera on paper, 80 x 110. Museo d'Arte Moderna, Palazzo Buonaccorsi, Macerata.

Polenta Nostalgia

From Abruzzo2000 Maildigests of the early 2000s.
  • AAAAAahhhh polenta - such sweet memories!!! My father slaves over the stove cooking it very carefully to make sure it's perfect with no clumps. I still go over for dinner when he makes it, usually in the winter. We don't eat it on a board or anything but he tells me that's what they used to do back in Pietracamela, Teramo where he was born. (Elda Giardetti)
  • My mother was from Civitella del Tronto, in Teramo, and we ate polenta off of a wooden board, a big one. It was topped with a Bolognese sauce and a lot of grated cheese, when you were done, it looked like a map. (Giovanni)
  • I remember my Father, from Lettomanopello, serving polenta on a big platter which we all ate from on occasion. He used to say something like we were sharing food together or family togetherness. I can't really remember, but it was a very special time. (Frances Toppa Moy)
  • Polenta! We called it "pooland," and my dad spent what seemed like hours on a Sunday, carefully, slowly, pouring the watered cornmeal into the boiling water so there would be no lumps. The firmed "pooland" was spread on a board and rolled out with what looked like a windowshade roller, then Mom made grooves along the sides and they poured the sausage-based tomato sauce on top. A little Parmesan cheese, and nothing was so delicious! Wonder what our rural Ohio neighbors would have thought... (Emily Webster Love)
  • I remember my grandfather serving up Polenta on Ash Wednesday Eve, or Fat Tuesday, He and My Grandmother would cover the dining table with these large serving boards and the Whole Family would gather there, Aunts, Uncles, cousins, about 25 in all, they would top it with tomato sauce and all kinds of meat. Everyone would tunnel their way to the middle of the table. (Richard Chiarilli)
  • We had a large family - fifteen in all. My father would cook polenta. It was a yellow corn meal. Very simple, but delicious. he cooked it in a large pot. It was served as though it was a pudding, he didn't use dishes. It was served on top of the table, he indented the center of the serving and added sauce and a little piece of meat. When we finished eating all he had to do was wipe the table clean. And we were happy for that meal. This was our "happy meal" (Lou Dandrea)
  • As I was growing up my mother would put it on big platters and we would all have to share with each other. Being the youngest I always had the pleasure of sharing with my dad. It was always a race to see who got to the middle of their platters first. The losers had to do the dishes that night. When I tell other Italian friends how we ate it in our home they never heard of it. I am glad to know that the sharing and racing was part of my mother and fathers memories that they brought with them to America. (Judy Liva)