In the past couple of centuries, polenta (cornmeal mush) together with chestnuts and potatoes, was the main aliment of the population of Ticino. Over time the regional cuisine – although enriched with aliments, flavors and recipes from Northern Italy and the countries of emigration – was able to preserve its main characteristics: genuine products, preference for strong flavors, simplicity of the dishes in relation to the rural world. The most renowned and appreciated is polenta accompanying cheeses, cured meats and typical recipes like braised beef, stews or jugged game-meat.
In Switzerland, when you hear someone speak about polenta you immediately think about Ticino. This food finds its roots at the times of the Romans and the Greeks. In Ticino the sweet corn polenta propagated relatively slowly starting from the 1800s. Many amusing legends are told about corn, called "Carlon" in the Ticino dialect. One in particular attributes its distribution to San Carlo Borromeo. Moved by the suffering of the Ticino population during a famine, he is said having transformed a poisonous cereal into an edible plant.
Although some luxury restaurants re-elaborated the recipe with elegant interpretations, polenta remains a rustic dish. The best is the one mixed by hand and cooked over a chimney fire because it absorbs the firewood's delicate aroma. Today it is possible to achieve a good polenta over an electric stove by using a cauldron equipped with an electric metallic hand allowing you to mix without trouble.
The traditional recipe
Ingredients for 6 people
2 l salted water
500 g corn flour
In a copper cauldron, over a chimney fire, boil 1 liter of salted water (keep the other liter to be added as it cooks). Slowly pour 350 grams of polenta flour while stirring with a long wooden ladle. Fifteen minutes later, add the remaining flour and half a glass of boiling water. Continue to stir while adding, from time to time, the leftover water. Proceed in this fashion until it's finally cooked, after approximately an hour. Pour the polenta (that should be eaten hot) on a wooden board and slice it.
To make a good polenta you need excellent corn flour. Not long ago the cobs in Ticino were grown as livestock forage. In recent years however the situation has changed: the agronomist Paolo Bassetti and the Terreni alla Maggia farm produce excellent corn flour with corn grown on the Magadino plain and in Ascona. You can purchase it in some big grocery stores and in many Ticino food stores.
“Our farm - explains Paolo Bassetti - is focused on the quality of the product. The cobs are initially peeled, undergoing a visual-manual selection to remove the defective or moldy parts, and then dried. Our flour is packaged in its natural state, exactly as it came out of the mill meaning we don't separate the finer parts, that give the flavor, from the larger ones, that give the consistency. This allows us to obtain a polenta with a good texture. We also offer products with rye, giving more flavor to the dish." But the feather in the cap of Paolo Bassetti's products is the Rossa del Ticino (Ticino Red), and ancient native variety with red grains, saved and selected by ProSpecieRara. The price is three times higher than normal corn, "but it results in a very special polenta", concludes Bassetti. Every type of flour also has an organic version.
From the cobs to the fields of the Terreni alla Maggia farm that are ground in the Bassetti mills, beyond the classical yellow and red flours there's also the white polenta typically Venetian and a black one, widespread in North-Western Spain. A distinctive trait of the flours produced by Terreni alla Maggia: they are all gluten-free.