The best polenta I ever ate was in the streets of Cuneo, a town in Italy’s Piemonte region. By sheer luck, we had stumbled across the annual Fiera del Marrone celebrating the harvest of fat succulent chestnuts. I’ve been thinking about that experience because the festival is about to take place, from October 13-16 (if you’re anywhere in striking distance, I urge you strongly to make your way there).
We had just come from Alba, watching monied gourmands and Milan restaurateurs pay fabulous sums for white truffles at their aromatic peak. The scene in Cuneo’s central piazza was entirely different. Freshly harvested chestnuts, resembling tiny hedgehogs with their spiny coverings, served as a decorative ground covering. Sweating, shirtless men were roasting marroni over open fires, to be sold warm to people lined up to buy a sack for one and a half euros.
Then we came upon several men cooking polenta in enormous cast iron pots, again over open fires. It took muscle for them to move that mass of steaming mush, stirring with long spatula-like sticks. We had dinner plans, so I ordered just one bowl for three of us to taste. The polenta was a tawny color because buckwheat flour had been combined with the cornmeal. Standing in the street, we dipped our spoons into the steaming, utterly delicious porridge, laced with melting chunks of local toma cheese–and kept dipping until it was gone. We went off to dinner after that, which turned out to be forgettable, and I’ve always regretted not cancelling the reservation and eating my fill of that remarkable polenta.
Polenta taragna, a mixture of buckwheat and other whole grains with cornmeal, has an earthiness that is similar to the flavor of my Cuneo polenta. Once you find it, whether on line or in a specialty shop, store it in the freezer to dole out when you need a cool-weather treat. And, if you can’t get that, don’t let it stop you from making polenta with good stone-ground cornmeal. It makes a deeply traditional and satisfying meal, as I discovered years ago in Cuneo, which is why you’ll find the recipe in my new cookbook, Piatto Unico.
Buckwheat-Corn Polenta with Fontina
Makes 4 to 6 servings
2 cups polenta taragna (buckwheat-corn polenta) or coarse stone-ground cornmeal
Sea salt or kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper, optional
4 ounces Fontina cheese (preferably from Valle d’Aosta), cut in small cubes*
1. Combine the polenta with 6 ½ cups water and 1 teaspoon salt in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Over medium heat, bring to a boil, stirring once or twice.
2. Adjust the heat to simmer at a gentle pace. Stir often to keep the polenta from sticking and break up any incipient lumps; start with a whisk and switch to wooden spoon as the mixture thickens. Cook until the polenta reaches the consistency of runny cooked oatmeal and tastes fully cooked, 15 to 25 minutes, depending on the coarseness of the cornmeal. Taste and stir in additional salt if needed; season to taste with pepper, if using.
3. Just before serving, stir in the Fontina. Once softened, but not melted, dish the polenta into small deep bowls or soup crocks.
* You could substitute any good melting cheese with a nutty flavor, such as a young Asiago or Comté.