Tag Archives: polenta

La Polentata delle Ceneri

Enrico Pazzagli, 'Watercolor Depicting One of the First Polentate, early 1800s'

Detail of Enrico Pazzagli’s ‘Watercolor Depicting One of the First Polentate, Early 1800s’ **

Polentata’ is probably best translated as polenta festival or fair, and many towns around Italy today are hosting some sort of polenta-centered event. Why today? Polenta has long been associated with Ash Wednesday and the Lenten period on account of its ‘lean’ quality—it’s a peasant dish, if you will, part of the cucina povera. If you make polenta the way I do—usually not without a dollop of cream or butter, maybe cheese, and typically alongside a nice roast meat of some kind and shameful amounts of gravy—you might find this hard to swallow. In any case, symbolically if not in practice in all of our kitchens, a serving of polenta on Ash Wednesday marks the close of the ‘fat days’ and the onset of Lenten customs such as fasting, penance, atonement.

Here in Borgo San Lorenzo, locals have been organizing a polentata on Ash Wednesday every year since 1800. It’s one of the longest-running folk events in the Mugello, with a celebrated backstory that’s hard not to get a little enthusiastic about.  In 1799, following the French invasion of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, a battle to push out French troops took place in the streets of Borgo (much of the Mugello and Casentino areas were influenced at that time by the resistance movement Viva Maria, centered in Arezzo, where resistance fighters took back their city after Napoleon invaded). After the ‘furious battle in the streets around the Borgo San Lorenzo castle’ had ended, and the dead had been buried, local housewives and peasant women set about cooking huge potfuls of polenta to feed the stricken survivors.

The following year the polentata took place on Ash Wednesday, becoming known as ‘la polentata delle ceneri’ (cenere = ash), and has been held every year since in the town’s Piazza Garibaldi. According to Aldo Giovannini, a local writer and journalist who has published numerous books on the Mugello and possesses an archive of over 90,000 images of our territory, the polentata was kept a simple affair, free of the concerns of social class—a testament to la libertà.

** The watercolor is by Enrico Pazzagli, a local artist who creates  beautiful works of Mugello landscapes, scenes, towns, and more.

 

Polenta with Pancetta & Red Wine Vinegar Sauce: A Rediscovered Recipe

poor man’s polenta

Born in 1943 in Borgo San Lorenzo, Tebaldo Lorini is a writer and folklorist who researches gastronomic traditions of the Mugello. His cookbooks and the recipes therein are the fruit of his conversations with locals throughout our region, and as such represent an invaluable record of living memory.

Last year Lorini published Ricette Proibite: Rane, Asini, Rondinotti, Gatti e Tartarughe nella Tradizione Alimentare, or ‘Prohibited Recipes: Frogs, Donkeys, Swallows, Cats, and Turtles in Food Tradition.’ Not surprisingly, controversy soon followed, in particular from animal rights activists, but not only. With its recipes for oven-baked stork, crow ragù, cat stew, swan with orange sauce, grilled fox and more, Ricette Proibite stirred debate and roused emotions among a broad array of folks. To the accusations of sharing ‘unthinkable’ and ‘disgusting’ recipes, Lorini said: ‘Who said certain animals can be eaten and others not? Laws are different from country to country, as are all customs, histories and traditions. Tastes change over time. Today some recipes are the classic Sunday lunch, while others cannot even be named.’ In Lorini’s defense, some noted that many of these ‘unthinkable’ recipes were born out of the extreme hunger experienced during the war years, a time when other ‘acceptable’ forms of meat were scarce.

Leaving that thorny debate aside, today I am making a far less controversial recipe of Lorini’s, from his 1985 book Mugello in Cucina: Storie, Prodotti, Tradizioni, Ricette. In this work, Lorini explores the eating habits of ancient peoples up through the 20th century and reveals some local recipes of the recent past that few today would recognize, let alone serve.  According to Lorini, a sauce made from finely minced pancetta cooked in fresh garlic and red vinegar, la pancetta all’aceto, was used primarily by the charcoal makers of the Apennine Mountains (formerly one of the principle industries of my town, Grezzano) to flavor polenta. A distant cousin of sauces like carbonara and bagna cauda, pancetta all’aceto sauce should be served very hot. You can serve this as pictured above with creamy polenta or as below, with slices of crunchy grilled polenta.

Ingredients

750 ml (3 cups) water, or 1 liter (4 cups) if you want a creamier, much less dense polenta
185 grams (1 & ½ cups) polenta
100 grams (½ cup circa) of cubed pancetta
2 large garlic cloves
4 Tbls red wine vinegar
2 Tbls olive oil
1 Tbls butter
salt & pepper

Instructions

You need a large-ish sauce pan for the polenta and a medium-sized shallow pan for the sauce. The polenta and the sauce should be prepared simultanously.

Set the water to boil.

If you are working with a whole piece of pancetta, slice it into ¼-inch-thick slices then into small cubes until you have about ½ cup. Lorini’s recipe says to mince the pancetta, which is a challenge, so I settled for small cubes. Peel and mince the garlic and set aside. If you prefer a more delicate garlic taste, leave the peeled cloves whole.

When the water is boiling, add 2 teaspoons of salt. Now slowly pour in the polenta, whisking continuously. Lower the heat and cook for approximately 10-12 minutes, or until the polenta is really smooth. Turn the heat off, add the butter, stir well and cover to keep warm.

Meanwhile heat the olive oil on high in the other pan and add the pancetta and garlic. Lower the heat and stir occasionally. After 2 or 3 minutes add a pinch of salt and pepper and add the vinegar. Cook for another 5 minutes or until the pancetta is rosy in color and a sauce has formed in the pan.

Transfer the polenta to a serving dish and make a small well in the middle. Pour the pancetta and every last drop of the juice over the polenta. This is a cucina povera dish, after all. Do not even think of counting calories or fat grams or any such nonsense. Serve very hot.

pancetta2

poor man’s polenta (grilled)

‘Ciao, Polentona!’

polenta baked with porcini mushrooms

polenta baked with porcini mushrooms

Polentona is an Italian slang word for a woman from the North, polenta being a popular and widely-consumed staple food of regions such as Val d’Aosta, Lombardy, and Piedmont. In the final scene of Benvenuti al Sud (the Italian remake of Dany Boon’s comedy Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis), in which a southern couple and a northern couple exchange farewells, a southern woman teasingly calls her northern counterpart polentona (1:05). Of course, food-related nicknames and epithets of the sort abound in Italy, pejorative or harmless as dictated by context and intent. In this scene, polentona is clearly a term of endearment, a playful underscoring of the culture gap that divides the two women despite their common nationality.