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Guest Blog: Sharing in La Polenta

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No doubt about it:  the sharing of savory foods is Italy's nonpareil social link.   While the breaking of bread together denotes communion or mutual sharing and fellowship in both Judaic and Christian tradition, in Italian tradition, the most communal food is certainly polenta - when spread out on a wooden board (lo spianatoio, literally “the spreader”) down the center of a long table, diners on both sides scooping up the polenta with big spoons. A meal of just polenta, la polentata - best savored with a robust red wine - reminds today’s Italians of those bygone days of la miseria (best translated as “rural poverty") when cornmeal cooked in boiling water - and maybe served with meat sauce (a treat) - filled the stomachs of many a farm family.

Italian gastronomical traditions mirror the history of Italy and polenta is no exception. Polenta is as old as Italy. The first ingredients were indigenous: ground barley, farro (spelt), beans, and peas and the Etruscans, Greeks and Saracens brought here their own versions of dishes made from these ground legumes and grains. The Romans called such dishes “puls”and later “pulentum”. “Pulentum” nourished Roman soldiers as they set out to conquer the known world. Cornmeal arrived from the New World on the ships of Cristoforo Colombo and took over rapidly as the star ingredient of polenta.

Caloric and filling, polenta is a winter dish. Nowadays, in vogue in gourmet restaurants (even in the States), it’s hard to imagine that poor farmers here once hoped they’d never see another spoonful of polenta! The best place to enjoy a true polentata is at Ristorante Da Giovannino in the Assisi countryside, where Giovannino's daughter-in-law, Serenella, takes turns stirring the huge pot of polenta with her mother Rosella. When ready, they spread the steamy polenta out on the spianatoio and sprinkle pecorino (sheep’s milk cheese) on top.  La miseria is long gone:  ladlefuls of a rich meat sauce loaded with local veal, ground pork, sausages, ribs, and mushrooms are spooned on top of the polenta. Parmigiano adds the finishing touch before Serenella’s son Fabio proudly carries the long spiantoio to hungry guests at the long dining room table. Spoons in hand, an enthusiastic student group is ready to share this cornmeal communion!


By Anne Robichaud, the only American authorized as an Umbrian Regional tour guide. Read about her Umbrian hilltown tours, cooking classes in her home and in the US and her "memoirs of rural life" on www.annesitaly.com. Enjoy the many stories on her blog http://annesitaly.com/blog/