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  • Giorgio Pintzas Monzani

Polenta: One of the First Recipes Ever

Although bread gets all the attention, polenta may have quietly played a very important role in the gastronomic history of civilization.

(Photo: Pastaweb)

While bread is widely recognized as one of the oldest and most important foods used for human sustenance, the importance of polenta in the human evolution is largely forgotten. The same ingredients, with different steps and measurements: a mixture of coarse flours and water, in equal measures, cooked on the fire until it reaches a homogeneous consistency. Despite the modern recipe being associated with the northern regions of Italy, we cannot define its Roman origin; in fact, its history goes back to the very beginnings of human civilizations. THE FIRST STEPS In the regionsof Mesopotamia, the Sumerians were the first ones to make this cooked dough, using flours of millet and rye, which in turn were the first cereals to be cultivated. For centuries the preparation remained almost unchanged in terms of types of flours. The transformation from a necessary food to a symbol of gastronomy and culture begins with the arrival of polenta in the Hellenic territory. First of all, we have a substantial difference related to the raw material used: in fact, millet and rye were replaced by barley, which was much more present in the Greek peninsula. Also, the meaning of the preparation itself underwent a deeper variation. Due to the development of the flourishing Greek culture, people began to pay more attention to the taste of polenta and to the enrichment of the dish with herbs and spices, starting to perceive it as a direct substitute of bread, and as an accompaniment to other main dishes. THE ELEVATION FROM DISH TO SYMBOL After the cultural exchanges with the Hellenic cultures, polenta arriveed to settle in the Roman daily life, which will give new life to the millenary mixture. It was during the Republican era that the ancestor of the name polenta was born: puls, which indicated a cooked mixture of water and spelt flour typical of the diet of the Latins. Cooks of that time began to pay the utmost attention to seasonings in order to enrich a very simple dish. It was no longer an accompaniment to other dishes, but it became a main course itself: the most used condiments were hummus, fish, meat and, for sweet versions, fruit and honey. Marco Gavio Apicio, the greatest gastronome of the Roman times, in his manuscript De re coquinaria carefully explains the type of spelt used and the division between different versions of the same dish. Between the lines of his collection, we read that for the creation of Roman polenta, “triticum spelta” was used, an ancient cereal and ancestor of soft wheat. In addition, we are explained the difference between"puls" and "puls julianae": where in the first example we have a classic and neutral preparation, while the second includes all the preparations of polenta seasoned with any additional ingredient.

Apicius also refers to the "puls punica", characteristic of the Carthaginians, where instead of a savory recipe, there was a sweet version with ingredients such as flour, goat cheese, honey and eggs. POLENTA AND ROMAN POLITICS The writings that have come down to us today referring to polenta from Roman times, do not only treat it as a recipe. Seneca, a Roman politician, and philosopher, used polenta as part of his propaganda against the loss of values in the Roman Empire. According to the senator, the Roman population was experiencing a crisis of moral qualities, blaming it on the loss of frugality, pleading for "parsimonia veterum": that is, the recovery of the most ancient customs, linked to the period in which the Latins were used to consuming the "puls". In fact, he reported the following words: "Pulte, non pane, vixisse longo tempore Romanos manifestum". "Of pulta and not of bread lived for a long time the Romans". TODAY'S MATERIALS Today the most common and widespread polenta is the one made of corn flour, which gives a yellow color as opposed to the darker one eaten in ancient times. The use of maize instead of traditional flours began with the discovery of the Americas and the importation of new products to the old continent. Nowadays, the cereal native to South America is one of the most common cultivations of the planet: so much that its derivatives are found in 75% of the products on the shelves of supermarkets. In addition to corn, however, we can also find different flours in some variants of today's polenta: for example, bean flour, mainly used in eastern countries; or chestnut flour, a typical ingredient in the more mountainous areas of northern Italy. DIFFUSION AND NAMES As referred to previously, the recipe of polenta as we know it today is attributed to Italy and especially to the areas of the Po Valley. However, the spreading of the original recipes did not stop at the Roman times, instead continuing to spread the classic preparation around the world, leading then to regionality, the task of characterizing the dough according to the various cultures. Under the same recipe, we can find different names according to the countries of origin. In Hungary puliszka, in Georgia ghomi, in Albania harapash, in Morocco tarawasht, in Romania mamaliga, whereas in South American countries such as Brazil, Argentina or Uruguay we will find it as polenta. In Spain, one of the typical dishes of Castilian cuisine is a sausage named "morcilla de burgos", accompanied by the traditional polenta. All names and preparations of the same recipe, with local cultural facets.

Thehistoryofgastronomyalwaysteachesusmuchaboutourwayoflifeandourcustoms,but what matters most is that it always speaks to us about how similar and inextricably linked we are, even if we are separated by thousands and thousands of miles.

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