Polenta Party with a mountain view

For the past week I’ve been staying with my in-laws in their summer house in the mountains in Valle Vigezzo to firstly escape the heat of Milan, which I’m told peaked at 40 degrees plus humidity, and secondly to experience my first full week of hospitality here in the “valley” as the locals call it. August is a when it all happens, apparently, and up till now I’ve always been away in this busy summer period. As I unpack my bags I am given a taste of things to come as Titta, my mother-in-law takes me through the calendar of events for the week;

“Tonight, dinner with the uncles and aunts at that place up the hill that does meat on a hot stone” or simply put that you have to cook yourself.

“Lunch tomorrow, at home, with various relatives but feel free to skip if you’d rather be out doing other things”.

“Polenta Party at Mariangela’s (a cousin) baita”. A baita being the small mountain huts made of stone that are dotted throughout the valley and which are now being snapped up as the ideal summer hideout.

“Stinchetta party on Sunday” with, once again, a host of relatives and friends. My first taste of stinchetta, a local speciality, was a few years ago and simple as it is it’s surprisingly moorish. Consisting of just flour and water, a small pancake is then cooked on an open fire to give it its distinct wood fired taste and then topped off with butter and salt. Delicious!

Add to this a few spontaneous events thrown into the mix by friends including gnocchi party at Alessio’s and the highly anticipated annual bash at Giulia Rosa’s, a 96 year old veteran of the valley, and my week was set.

My In-laws are avid cooks with Titta previously owning a restaurant in the San Babila area of Milan but what I didn’t realise is that together with her brother they literally cook from dawn to dusk. Throughout my week I’d awake to a host of different smells ranging from focaccia, for breakfast, stuffed aubergines and zucchini, being prepared for lunch, chocolate torte, to take to dinner at friends that evening, and so on and on. I myself love to cook but the level of industry witnessed this week far surpasses my average time spent in the kitchen.

Friday’s polenta party was the talking point of the week not least because to reach the baita involves a 45 minute climb that would challenge some of the older family members and friends. A shuttle service of 4×4’s was decided upon with us young’uns expected, rightly so, to trek up for a midday start. The baita itself is a beautiful marriage between traditional materials and modern design with stone features intermingling with a glass staircase and open plan layout.

As the party got underway 50 or so guests snaked their way up the hill to claim their promised plate of polenta and catch up with old friends. I learn that the polenta party is an old tradition previously carried out by one the valleys elderly gentleman, now sadly deceased, that Mariangela has relaunched in a bid to keep the tradition alive and encourage old and young to mix, on which note she certainly succeeded as ages ranged from toddlers to senior citizens.


Copious amounts of polenta are cooked on a open fire ready to feed the hungry guests and a round of Gorgonzola awaits on the table to be served alongside. The Valle Vigezzians also serve their polenta with butter, milk, cream or with a friend egg on top, all of which is laid on for the party. As an English person I find it hard to describe the excitement generated by the humble plate of polenta but the Italians are literally mad for the stuff. If there is a comparison I would have to pick the English love of mash potatoes that can be enjoyed with gravy, cheese and I guess, like polenta, with a fried egg on top!

Recipe for Polenta

 

Ingredients

120g Polenta (boiled cornmeal)

Oil

250g Water

250g Milk

Salt

Butter

 

Preparation

  1. Cook on a traditional stove or over an open fire where possible.
  2. In a high pan, bring the water and milk to the boil and add in the salt and oil.
  3. Add in the polenta, stirring continuously, until fully mixed.
  4. Keep stirring periodically as the polenta starts to thicken. It takes circa 20-30 minutes to cook.
  5. Once cooked stir in some butter and salt to taste and serve with any of the following;

 

Serving Suggestions

Gorgonzola Cheese, Butter, Milk or cream, with a fried egg, with a meat ragu or goulash.

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