Polenta e osei (Polenta and birds)

 

This is probably going to be the most controversial recipe ever published on this website, so before dealing with the actual preparation some context is required. Polenta e osei simply means ‘polenta and birds’ in the dialect of Bergamo, a town in northern Italy which to this day suffers of its ancient fame of  pettiness and ignorance, due to the insularity of its inhabitants. While it is true that the local dialect is incredibly hard to understand even to fellow people from the same region, the truth is simply that Bergamo was essentially a mountain community, secluded and with its unique customs. They of course extended to cooking too. Polenta e osei is a perfect example, as it simply is the union of what was most readily available in the valley: polenta flour and birds. Truth to be told, when roasted the latter can be delicious but also quite horrific to see – which is why there are two very different dishes sharing the same name. In the twentieth-first century, the most common one is a cake made of sweetened polenta covered with colored almond paste and topped with marzipan birds coated in chocolate. It is of course exquisite, and it was created in the 1960s as an answer to the disgusted comments of outsiders when faced with the other, older recipe. Real polenta e osei is objectively ugly, very hearty and can be prepared in a number of ways, all of them very simple. The below recipe is as typical as it gets.

 

Ingredients

- 500 g polenta flour

- 100 g butter

- 150 g sliced pancetta

- 16 small birds (larks, thrushes, bluebirds, blackbirds…)

- Sage leaves

- Salt

- Ground black pepper

 

Preparation

Clean the birds by removing the eyes and the legs, and plucking them on an open flame. If you want to follow tradition you can stop here: better civilized persons may want to cut the beaks off and open the birds to remove all internal organs. In any case, do not wash them. Put a pinch of salt and pepper inside the chests, wrap each body in a pancetta slice, add a sage leaf and stick a long toothpick through it all to keep it together. Melt the butter in a casserole making sure to coat it to make it non-sticky, add the remaining pancetta and sage, then lay the birds in. Cook on a gentle flame until done: the times change with the size of the birds, but take care to frequently collect the condiment dripping in the pan and pour it on the birds again. While you do this, cook the polenta in the usual way. When everything is ready, make a little polenta mound in each plate, top it with a few birds, then pour the condiment over it all. You’re done! Polenta e osei is supposed to be eaten taking the birds by the beak and chomping them off in one bite. The bones can be crunched or taken out of your mouth with your fingers.