Polenta has been a part of the Italian diet since primitive times. It has not, however, always been a corn product. In ancient times, the term polenta referred to a mixture of kernels and grasses that were ground into a paste. The mixture would then be toasted on hot rocks and eaten for sustenance.
During Roman times, pulmentun was made from ceci bean grains that were toasted and crudely cracked over rocks. The broken grains were then stirred into boiling water to form a thick porridge.
Eventually, the Italians refined their milling processes, producing smoother flours and porridges. When Christopher Columbus introduced corn from the New World, polenta as we know it was born. Because polenta is coarse, rather than finely ground, the poor could afford it and the rich, always eager for something new, desired it. Eventually, however, the novelty faded and polenta became a poor man’s meal.
Corn now grows abundantly throughout northern Italy, particularly in Trentino, Veneto, and Friuli. Polenta’s roots may remain northward, but its popularity has transcended regional lines. Today, polenta is found on menus and tables throughout Italy and is showing up more often in the United States as a warming, stick to your ribs alternative to pasta. We especially love it with sausage and a tomato wine sauce as in our smacafam.