Staple food of Northern Italy
Italian cuisine has always been associated with pasta and pizza, although there is a staple food of Northern Italy that does not get such recognition which is polenta. In ancient times, what would later be called polenta started out as one of the earliest and simplest foods made from wild grains and later from primitive wheat, millet, spelt and chickpeas. The grain was mixed with water to form a paste and was then cooked on a hot stone. In this way, early polenta may have pre-dated leavened bread, since yeasts were often hard to come by and milling techniques were not yet refined.
In Roman times, polenta was the staple of the Roman Legions that would eat it in either porridge or in a hard cake like form. For the next few centuries, nothing changed in the history of polenta, much like the living conditions of those who ate it most – the peasantry.
Buckwheat polenta would eventually fall out of favor when a crop from the New World arrived in Italy sometime in the 15th or 16th centuries known as maize. The new crop was a perfect match for the farms of Northern Italy, where landowners could grow vast fields of corn for profit, while forcing the peasantry to subsist on cornmeal. This new form of polenta was abundant, but seriously lacking in nutrients compared to earlier forms of the dish.
The process to make a soft polenta involves a 3 to 1 ratio of water to polenta and constant stirring for up to 50 minutes. Today in a modern kitchen with a good heavy pot, polenta preparation is not so painstaking, but it still does need attention and occasional stirring. Cooking polenta using a double boiler method is even easier. When finished the polenta can be served in this soft form or poured out onto a slab and allowed to cool to form a cake.