Today’s offering is an interesting perspective on the Northern Italian staple of polenta – the yellow stuff which we all know and love, made from maize. It is made from maize, isn’t it? The story comes from an early eighteenth century text: Botanologia, the English herbal, or, History of plants (1710) by William Salmon.
XVI. Polenta. This the Ancients made variously: Pliny lib. 18. chap. 7. Says that the Greeks made it of Green Barly taken out of the Ear before it was fully ripe, steeped in Water, then beaten in a Mortar, after washed in Baskets, to free it from the Husks, so dried in the Sun, and afterwards steeped and beaten again, till it was thoroughly cleansed, which being dried was ground small: of this they took xx. pounds, and added thereto, Lin-seed, Coriander-seed of each j. pound: Salt ij. ounces: these last things well beaten together were mixed with the Barly, and so prepared for use. II. Other Grecians, says Pliny, Made it of Barly steeped for a Night in Water, and Husked by beating in a Mortar, after dried, and so parched or fried it the next day, and then ground it to Meal, to make Bread, Cakes, Puddings, or Broath of. III. The Italians Made it of Parched Barly, without any moistening, ground small; to xx. pounds of which they added Millet-seed win Pounder iij. Pounds, Salt ij ounces and a half, and them mixt them all together. IV. Galen Commends it to be Made of Fresh Barly, not full out ripe or hardned, and before the Beard was white, or quite dry, and then indifferently parched, and reduced to Flower, adding nothing else to it. Many nations used this Polenta instead of Bread, and the Cypriots, tho’ they had Wheat growing with them, yet mostly eat this. It drys and astringes more than Barly it self, binding the Belly and stopping fluxes, being drunk with Alicant, or red Wine: drunk with Water, it quenches thirst, and allays Inflamations of the Throat or Lungs. It was often eaten mixed with new Wine, or boiled up with Wine, and so eaten as every one liked best.
XVII. Maza. This is only Polenta, or the Flower of Parched Barly, moistned with some kind of Liquor, as every one liked best: some with Water, some with Water and Oil Olive, some with sweet Wine, some with Wine and Oil, and some mixed it with Honey, as Hesychius, Hippocrates and Galen declare: but Galen says that Maza, is hard of Digestion, and generates Wind: if it is well moistned with Water, sweet Wine, or Oil, and Honey also is added to it, the sooner passes off.
There are some interesting ideas for serving polenta in this piece, but it seemed like a cop-out to make them stand for the recipe of the day, so here are a couple of “real” recipes, from Murray's modern cookery book. Modern domestic cookery, by a lady (1851)
Mix ½ lb. of polenta (or maize flour) with ½ pint of milk; let it boil till it thickens; put into it 1 oz. of butter, a little salt, and cayenne pepper; bake it gently for 1½ hour. Turn it out of the dish when served. This pudding is very good with meat.
Sweet Polenta Pudding.
Mix the polenta as in the foregoing receipt: when it boils, add 1 oz. of butter, 1 lb. of moist sugar, the same of sultana raisins, the grated rind of a lemon, and 1 oz. of candied orange-peel sliced very finely; mix the whole well together, and bake it 1 ½ hour. The great recommendation of this pudding is the absence of eggs, which are not required with polenta.
A cheap pudding may be made by adding 2 tablespoonfuls of treacle to the polenta instead of the raisins, sugar, and candied peel.