I never thought I would look forward to a weekend in the mountains. I wither when the leaves begin to brown, and hibernate the minute the mercury drops below 10ºC. I prefer taking off clothes to layering, and cosying up by the fire pales in comparison to any balmy beach afternoon. But I’ll make an exception for polenta.
Old English polente, “a kind of barley meal,” from Latin pollenta, polenta, literally “peeled barley”.
Let’s set the scene: Italy has an incredible and very delicious mountain culture, whether or not you ski, hike, zipline or just hangout. And it’s all about the rifugi, rustic huts that dot along the mountains and valleys of the Dolomiti, Alpi and Appenini. At it’s very basic, the classic rifugio is a mountain hut, a simple shelter where you hit pause and reset before returning to the mountain. The 21st century rifugio still maintains traditional charms – high peaked wood ceilings, rustic boiserie, and carefully crafted wooden furniture and cabinetry – with the bonus of a restaurant. The typical Italiano rifugio is almost always guaranteed to be a culinary oasis, and it’s typical fare is polenta.
In Trentino – Alto Adige, polenta is king – a gorgeous, golden-yellow cornmeal whose recipe variations – creamy, crispy, savoury, sweet – are always sublime and guaranteed to fill you up and restore your energy
There is nothing new about polenta. Today, we know it as a version of cornmeal, but the oldest cooked dough recipes in the world, the pane dei poveri (bread of the poor) was made across the continents with various grains. Millet and rye for the Ancient Sumerians and Mesopotamians, barley flour for the Greeks, while the Romans mixed up ground farro (spelt) and called it Farros Puls, and those who ate it pultiferi. Fast forward a millennium and a half, and it’s the discovery of the New World that creates polenta as we know and love it- a delicious, boiled cornmeal that can be baked, fried or grilled and garnished with whatever you heart desires.
Polenta is the every person meal – an ingredient so malleable and easy-going that can switch up from polenta classica – simply boiled polenta with butter – to clever like polenta carbonara, you got it- just add in carbonara ingredients, polenta concia (melt in cheese) and polenta macafana aka the “hunger killer”, a powerful punch of polenta, Spressa delle Giudicarie (a semi-hard cheese from Trentino’s southeast), and chicory mixed together.
For creamy polenta lovers, you can’t get more trentino than The Polenta Box. A steaming plate of creamy, golden polenta garnished with freshly picked porcini mushrooms and fine strips of an Alto Adige IGP cured, lightly smoked ham, it’s a simple and elegant dish that practically waves the Sudtirol flag. For a little crunch, polenta al forno (baked) is easy. Cooked polenta is placed in baking pan, baked, cut into strips and served however you like it. Polenta alla piastra (with sausage and red sauce) is the upgrade you never knew you needed, and a favourite on the mountain top. And finally, polenta fritta, you guessed it- polenta strips fried and garnished however you want.
Picture this: a chilly morning spent navigating the Dolomites, whether by ski, snowboard, snowshoe or lift, and it’s time to get down the mountain. There is no better downhill motivation when gazing at those beautiful pink peaks than knowing that a warm plate of polenta awaits.
Baby, it’s cold outside so we’ve curated The Polenta Box with our favourite delicacies including Tuscany’s own spezzatino di chianina (a traditional meat stew made with Chianina beef and tomatoes), sale dei papi (the Pope’s own fleur de sel) and the tastiest porcini sott’olio (locally sourced piemontese porcini mushrooms in olive oil)to key you cosy.