Polenta is the closest thing you can find to a real Italian (meaning national instead of regional) food. It was what Italians ate before the middle ages, and what they still eat today – albeit with a much better variety of options. Not surprisingly, it is a very simple preparation: flour is sprinkled into boiling water and stirred until the release of starches makes it gel. The resulting sticky fluid is then eaten as it is, or left aside until it is cold, firmer and useful for other preparations like frying it.

What makes such a basic food interesting (and tasty!) is its extreme versatility, beginning with the type of flour used. While of course in ancient times people used other cereals, in Italy polenta is generally made with corn flour. Another common variant is using chestnuts flour. Italians being Italians, they couldn’t resist inventing dozens of local recipes, each one of them considered the “true” polenta. They all involve mixing different types of flours (in example: the polenta taragna of Bergamo uses corn and buckwheat) and/or adding local ingredients to impart more flavor.

The most frequent additions are various meat cuts – like in the famous ossobuco alla milanese – or sausages, cheeses, herbs or fats like butter, lard and so on. In the past this was mostly done to strenghten what, according to an Italian proverb, is “a dish that fills your belly quickly, and as quickly is digested”. Today the art of polenta is however a strictly gourmet alchemy – and with the hundreds of excellent typical Italian ingredients available, one that never ends to amaze.