From its humble origins as a northern Italian staple for the peasants, Polenta has come a long way to become the fine-dining themed comfort food of today. Many people divide its solid form into layered terrines or make it into easy creamy porridges with butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Mostly referred to as ‘Italian grits’, polenta comprises of a coarse, stone-grinded cornmeal, giving it the signature grainy texture. But how did it all start? What are the origins of this hearty Italian porridge? Let’s find out.
Origins of Polenta
The origins of polenta lie in the picturesque northern Italian countryside but historical records show that its earlier versions had been popular in the entire Italian region since the Roman days. Roman soldiers used to refer to it in Latin as pulemntum.
It was a staple food for them because 2 pounds of grain was all they were allowed in field rations. They used to toast the grains on stone oven fires, mash it and then store it with them.
Whenever they found a chance to make stops, they would then use the stored grains to grind them into a gruel-like consistency and then boil it to turn it into a porridge. Some of them even left the mixture to harden and later ate it as a semi-leavened cake.
Polenta’s history in the Italian countryside
As time went on, Europeans began experimenting with the ingredients of Polenta and replaced smelt and millet with barley and then eventually with grain far, a more palatable version of smelt.
With improvements in grain-grinding technologies, crushed plumentum grains were transformed into farina, one of the first fine floors. That said, grinding grains into fine genuine flour was still an expensive process so polenta remained within the aristocratic Roman elite.
As mills became more and more common, villagers in the countryside began adopting the dish in large numbers.
It was an essential staple food for most of the working class communities and the peasant families.
They used to pour polenta in the center of a big wooden board where it could cool down, harden, making it easier for the people to cut it into portions. During the olden days, Polenta was usually prepared using starchy ingredients like wheat, millet, chickpeas, beans, legumes and chestnut flour.
The 16th century brought corn from America to Europe and the Europeans, specially the Italians, could never have enough of it ever since.
Native Americans and Polenta
The story of polenta’s origins even coincide with the discovery of the Americas by Cristopher Columbus in the 15th and 16th century. On his voyage back, he introduced his fellow Europeans with the idea of growing maize and corn.
Before his discovery of the Americas, Europe had no idea about these plants or crops. Along with this, Columbus informed Europeans about a special dish Native Americans prepare by mixing cornmeal in water along with cheese, meat and various sauces.
By the end of the 17th century, Europeans began growing corn with ease and many gastronomists suggest that this is where they started replacing the starchy ingredients of polenta with cornmeal and made it into how we know it today.