Knowing how to make a sweet polenta is not for everyone. At the Pro-loco of Cetica, they make it an extraordinary way, during the November Festival.
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I am starting the 2022 Flavors and Knowledge with an unusual recipe and a tradition that reappears in Tuscany every year. In the mountainous areas of the province of Arezzo in Tuscany, chestnut trees are plentiful, from which to obtain “sweet” flour, once an extreme wealth for the winter of peasant families. Once stored in unique drying rooms, the Tuscan farmers turn them into soft flour using water-propelled grinding mills. The next step is to compress the flour, remove oxygen, and prevent flour weevils from penetrating. Then, when needed, the necessary quantity is removed and broken up with an ax to bring it back to the soft flour stage.
Chestnuts get cooked in all possible versions, including the sweet variant, also the most popular today. In Tuscany is called Castagnaccio or Baldino. Although knowing how to make a sweet polenta is not for everyone, we know that the Pro-loco folks in Cetica make it mainly during the November Festival, with superb results. Teenagers get chosen every year, whose’ task is to mix the polenta vigorously with a long and thick rolling pin. The process is done in a typical copper cauldron because tradition is sacred around these hills.
They add the sieved flour to the boiling water over a live fire ignited by wood. A generous amount of marine salt complements the taste, and the polenta will be ready as soon as the water absorbs the whole amount of flour. They remove the cauldron from the heat and rest it on a perforated bench to secure it. The rolling pin keeps the string lump-free. They use a spoon dipped in cold water to form the portions for the invited participants. The traditionalist swears on the polenta poured over a wooden plank and cut with a metal wire or guitar string. It seems effortless to the first-timers witnessing the process, but trust me, it can be difficult even for a seasoned chef.
In these mountain villages, there is no lack of practice.
Sweet polenta is on the table almost every day in winter, an economical way to feed many mouths by filling stomachs with volume and warmth, and the best thing comes when it’s time to bring it to the table.
What is the accompaniment?
For the delicate palates of children or “foreigners,” the most popular accompaniment is fresh sheep’s milk ricotta. The cold cheese contrasts the hot porridge with a sensational taste. For true lovers of tradition (and, if you are not indigenous, for genuine thrill-seekers), the ideal accompaniment is sambudello with sauce.
What is sambudello? A fresh sausage, traditional from Casentino, obtained with non-noble parts of the pig, such as heart, spleen, liver, lung, and Arigantino-style pancetta. Sambudello’s recipe includes salt, black pepper, spices, fennel seeds, and red wine. The mixture goes through a meat grinder as a standard sausage procedure. It is not a taste for everyone, similar to liver sausage, sauteed in a terracotta pot with tomato’s inclusion. However, the savory and robust flavor complements the delicate texture of the chestnut polenta. The sambudello’s powerful combination is not limited to the Casentino area. For example, in Talla, the polenta enjoys the taste of freshly stewed codfish, the sauce changes, but the steps remain unaltered, perhaps with the addition of chili. Occasionally, even herring appear on the stunning and weird combination. I guess the robust flavors meant fortifying the empty and cold stomachs of those who worked outdoor all day.
Fresh Sambudello with farm-made bread.
Ingredients for 10
Five large eggs, separated
¾ cup of granulated sugar
One teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 cup all-purpose flour
¾ cup of chestnut flour
Begin by buttering a 10-inch × 2-inch-deep cake pan and line the bottom with a piece of parchment or wax paper, cut to fit.
Whisk egg yolks in a bowl to liquefy. Whisk in half the sugar and the one teaspoon lemon zest and continue whisking, either manually or with a counter-top kitchen mixer
Combine the chestnut flour in a small bowl and stir well to mix. Set aside.
In a clean, dry bowl, whip the egg whites with the salt and continue beating until the whites hold a very soft peak. Increase the whipping speed and pour in the remaining sugar in a slow stream. Continue whipping until the egg whites have a soft peak.
Fold the yolk mixture into the whites, fold in the flour mixture, and sift it over the egg mixture in three to four additions. Be careful to fold gently to avoid deflating the batter.
Pour the finished batter into the previously prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake the cake at 350 degrees for about 35 minutes until it is a light golden color and firm in the center. Remove the cake from the pan immediately by inverting it onto a rack. Liftoff the pan and reinvert onto a rack to cool completely. Store the cake tightly wrapped in plastic at room temperature or in the refrigerator.
An extraordinary pleasure is a sweet polenta, now lost in townhouses and at risk even in mountain ones—a precious asset. The Knowledge of the past must remain the wealth of our tomorrow.
Thanks for reading. Eat safe and wear a mask! Ciao Chef W
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