– Local knowledge such as this is the heart and fun of Anne’s U.S. Cooking and Lecture Tour “Feast of Umbrian Rural Cuisine” home events. Just a few evenings left in the MD, DC, and VA areas… not to be missed! And join Anne’s “Inside” Umbria tour (for just 12) in May!
The sharing of savory foods is Italy’s nonpareil social link. The breaking of bread together denotes communion or fellowship in both Judaic and Christian tradition and in Italian tradition, the most communal food is certainly la polentata, when cornmeal polenta is 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, sharing cornmeal goodness and conversation.
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 with the Etruscans, Greeks and Saracens bringing here their 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) – to the astonishment of our rural friends who once hoped they’d never see another spoonful of cornmeal! 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.
Each one ready to join in this “cornmeal communion”: a warm – and savory – joining-together on a cold winter’s night.