Your Honour, I bring to your attention Exhibit A in the the case of Nava vs Polenta.
You will see before you the photo of the victim, La Polenta. She has been the property of i Nonni Nava for some years, enslaved in their mountain home that is perched on a hill in the village of Verrand just a kilometre from Courmayeur.
The Mountain Home
La Polenta has been at the disposal of many a Nava grandchildren who fight incessantly at each meal time to rest their little Nava bottoms on her soft cottony fabric.
This yellow cushion has been named after the most popular dish in the Italian Alps. Polenta is a staple in the mountainous regions of Italy, a dish that the Italian has grown up savouring. Polenta is cornmeal, kawan kawan. It is eaten accompanied by various stews, both vegetarian and meat filled. Polenta is to North Italy what noodles are to Northern China.
Polenta is a word borrowed from the Italian language, referring to a dish which consists of boiled cornmeal*. Before corn was introduced from the New World, grain mush, a gruel like dish from which polenta derived and commonly eaten in the Roman times and after, was usually made with either millet, faro, spelt and also chickpeas. These starches were subsequently replaced by ground corn.
Polenta is usually classified as a peasant dish but more and more Italian restaurants are now adding it to their menus. There are virtually no restaurants in the Italian Alps or Piedmont region that do not serve up a dish of polenta with accompanying sauces and accoutrements. Some fancy restaurants have even deconstructed the dish and serve polenta beautifully plated with the polenta moulded into a neat mound served as an accompanying side instead of potatoes.
In Bergamo, where the Italian hails from, polenta is accompanied by a side dish of small birds that have been oven baked. In Courmayeur, I had polenta with roast lamb, sausages cooked in a tomato sauce, grilled sausages, oven baked trout, ratatouille and finally, cheese.
One of the best things to do food wise in Italy is to visit a restaurant that has been set up in the owner’s home. Agriturismo as this is referred to in Italian is an agriculturally based enterprise that brings people to farms for activities such as fruit picking, wine tasting or horse back riding and last but not least, food tasting. In our case, we drove half an hour up the mountains to stuff our faces with polenta and stew with no activities whatsoever except to sit in the sun after a hefty meal. What bliss! 🙂
This was what we had:
Polenta with slow cooked lamb
The meal was eaten at about 1500 m above sea level, at a small holding with their own goats, sheep, geese, ducks and chickens. They even had a shetland pony thrown in for entertainment and a sheep dog that herds the pony back down the hill when it so much as dares to saunter up to the fountain for a drink. The meat of the day depends on what the chef decides to prepare. The pony was off the menu by the way. That day, we had lamb that had been slaughtered and left to hang for 3 days to ensure that the meat becomes tender. The tenderised meat is then marinated with olive oil, herbs, salt and tomatoes and then oven baked slowly on a low temperature setting until the meat yields easily with a tug between your fingers and teeth. A dream dish and well worth the bumpy ride up the mountains for.
The Italian showed me how to eat polenta the proper way. You make a dent with your serving spoon to make a well whilst simultaneously tipping the spoon ever so slightly to allow the liquid to slide into the said well.
A Polenta Well of Sauce
For good measure, I added a bit of tomato and a piece of meat that had fallen off the bone. Yums!
Polenta can also be eaten with this:
Wild Boar Stew
This stew is made from wild boar cooked its own stock and flavoured by red wine bottled in the Aosta Valley. The sauce is rich and flavoursome and best eaten with polenta nature or plain. The types of meat served with Polenta are usually gamey meats. SS ordered a rabbit stew once . The meat was bathed in a creamy curry sauce, flavoured with fresh herbs. There were hints of curry when I had a taste so if you are thinking curry like creamy Korma Chicken, rest assured that it is not. Although I don’t see why that can’t be eaten with Polenta either. Hmmm, might be worth a look into.
RN likes her polenta oven baked with layers of Fontina, a type of medium hard cheese eaten in the Aosta Valley. Polenta Concia can be eaten on its own or with the stews mentioned above.
Occasionally, she would ask for an accompanying dish of sausages stewed in tomato sauce.
On another occasion, I decided to eat my polenta with trout grilled in a sage infused butter.
The Splayed Trout
This came with a dish of ratatouille.
Ra Ra Ratatouille
Needless to say, it was very sedap, my friends! I am, as you know, a firm believer in 5 fruits and veg a day. I can’t call a meal complete unless it has some fibre in it. This was indeed un repas complet, kawan kawan.
Polenta is a heavy side dish, I concur. However, it does not engorge my stomach like pasta or rice. I discovered this only about 3 years ago whilst on a ski trip to the mountains. Eaten after a morning of skiing, it both helps to regain your energy and to fuel you for the rest of the afternoon on the slopes. And all this with no bloated feeling. I feel as light as a feather even after a heavy polenta lunch.
Polenta flour comes either finely ground or coarsely ground. It all depends on your preference. Polenta is usually prepared slowly over a low fire. It requires plenty of stirring and can take up to 3 or 4 hours. Italian women in the mountains have benefitted from generations of cooking polenta. They have formed arms strong enough to carry hoards of grandchildren up and down mountain trails. Usually cooked in copper pots and stirred with wooden spoons, restaurants have taken to cooking their polenta in a pot that has a mechanised stirrer. This saves on the manual labour and leaves another pair of hands available to help in the kitchen. Very practical, indeed.
Keep Stirring the Polenta
Instant polenta flour can be purchased in the supermarkets for those who lack the time but do not want to miss out on the dish. This shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes to prepare. However, I’ve been told that this type of polenta, although serving its function, is not as tasty as the slow cooked one. That does make sense because no effort usually equates to no gain, for me, anyway.
Your Honour, I rest my case. Polenta remains the staple food in the Italian Alps and La Polenta remains a fought after favourite butt rest amongst the Nava hoard.
* Courmayeur and the Aosta Valley is bilingual in Italian and French.
*Polenta is also eaten in the American South, Spain, and various other parts of Europe.