Thursday, November 10, 2005

A taste of France, or is it Italy?

Today, November 10th ...

The delightfully curmudgeonly Scottish surgeon and writer, Tobias Smollett travelled to Europe in 1764 to improve his health. His journals and correspondence were later published as “Travels Through France and Italy”. On this day he wrote in a letter from Nice:

“ .. this country produces a good deal of Meliga, or Turkish wheat, which is what we call Indian corn. I have, in a former letter, observed that the meal of this grain goes by the name polenta, and makes excellent hasty-pudding, being very nourishing …”

The grain he was referring to was maize, and it no more came from Turkey (or India) than did the Turkey fowl. Maize originated in Central America, and was unknown in Europe before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. So – how come the word “polenta” appears in English at least 500 years earlier? One reference from 1398 says “Pollenta is corne isode ipeled & holed & ischeled with frotinge of handes”. Which means - wheat, soaked (boiled?) and hulled by rubbing it between the hands. Somehow the English “lost” polenta and rediscovered it as Italian!

Polenta is simply one name for the universal peasant food – mush, gruel, porridge, stirabout, hasty pudding - call it what you will, and make it from what you have – barley, oats, wheat, maize, or even chestnuts. Boil it up with any available liquid, and you have very hastily prepared a pudding.

Strange, isn’t it, that “polenta” seems exotic, whereas “hasty pudding” sounds plebeian? Mrs. W.G. Waters wrote “The Cook’s Decameron” - a book about Italian food - in 1901. She commended her husband in the Preface for his “great daring” in trying the recipes. Here is one of them.

Polenta is made of ground Indian-corn, and may be used either as a separate dish or as a garnish for roast meat, pigeons, fowl, &c. It is made like porridge; gradually drop the meal with one hand into boiling stock or water, and stir continually with a wooden
spoon with the other hand. In about a quarter of an hour it will be quite thick and smooth, then add a little butter and grated Parmesan, and one egg beaten up. Let it get cold, then put it in layers in a baking-dish, add a little butter to each layer, sprinkle with plenty of Parmesan, and bake it for about an hour in a slow oven. Serve hot.

Tomorrow … Food for “Split-stomach day”.

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