Every cuisine is built on a staple food – a starchy backdrop to the main event. It might be potatoes, rice, bread, or, if you’re from the north of Italy, polenta.
Cheap, rib-sticking, and innately comforting, it is – as tradition dictates – the perfect starchy staple. Yet, ever since Elizabeth David introduced the UK to the idea of polenta in the 1950s (described as a “finely ground Indian corn meal”), it has failed to escape the middle class cupboard; lost in the shade of pasta and pizza. Even in some corners of Italy, this cheap grain has taken on chic status. An irony considering it’s rather desperate past.
Polenta first found its way onto the Italian plate two thousand years ago. Known as polemtum, the simple millet porridge was a staple for the Roman foot soldier, who would have to pound and boil a daily ration of grain. As centuries past and empires fell, polenta remained. With the introduction of buckwheat to Italy at the end of the fifteenth century it experienced a slight facelift, but it still stayed resolutely at the heart of the peasants’ tables, albeit in a slightly grittier, greyer form.
It wasn’t until the second half of the sixteenth century and the import of maize from the Americas that polenta took on its recognisable yellow hue. Cultivated first by the peasants in Veneto, maize soon spread across northern Italy.
By the eighteenth century northern peasants were eating little else. It was, after all a cheap and resilient crop to produce, and reassuringly stodgy enough to line a labourer’s stomach. But the consequences of this diet were dire. By the end of the century, the countryside was riddled with an endemic of pellagra – a disease caused by eating an exclusive diet of maize. Goethe noted the effects of the disease in Italian Journey 1786-1788:
“Of the (Italian) inhabitants, I have little to say and that unfavourable…(the) sallow complexion of the women spoke of misery and their children looked just as pitiful…I believe that their unhealthy condition is due to their constant diet of polenta.”
It is little surprise that polenta has become so ingrained in the Italian psyche. In his wonderful article on the history of polenta, John Irving describes how his friend, a shoe seller in Piedmont, was always suspicious of the upmarket restaurants that featured polenta on their menus. For him, it was a food of necessity, of poverty.
Annalisa, a friend from Venice, tells me that polenta was to the Italians what potatoes were to the Irish. Her father used to have it for breakfast (with milk), lunch and dinner. “There is a certain degree of despair to polenta,” she explains.
I remember the first time I ate polenta, in Valle d’Aosta on the northern-most fringes of Italy. Called polenta grassa, or ‘fat polenta’ it was imbued with fontina cheese and butter – a far cry from the dish eaten by Italy’s peasantry, but a reminder of what a profound role polenta still plays in the Italian kitchen. Peasant food it may historically be, but layered with tomato sauce in Piacenza; cooked in cream in Valtellina; or spread atop a wooden table and piled with ragu in central Italy, there is a complexity and richness to polenta that travels further than the annals of cucina povera.
Polenta con Sugo e Salsicche (Polenta with sauce and sausages)
For the polenta
250g instant polenta
75g parmesan, grated
For the sausages
8 Italian sausages (fennel or chilli works well)
1 jar of good quality passata
2 garlic cloves
1. Fry the sausages and onion in olive oil for five minutes. Turn over and add the peeled and crushed garlic cloves. Turn the sausages over and fry for another five minutes.
2. Add the passata with a hearty sprinkling of oregano, salt and sugar if you decide it need it.
3. Cook on low for 20 minutes, or until the sausages are cooked all the way through. Check for seasoning – remember to add a splash of milk if it’s tasting too acidic.
4. Meanwhile, cook the polenta according to the packet instructions. Once cooked, take off the heat and beat in the cheese and butter. Season well and dollop into a large bowl. Pile the sausages on top with a good helping of basil and parmesan.