People come to Monterchi from all over the world to see the famous fresco by Piero della Francesca – The Madonna del Parto. What many of them miss, unfortunately, is the Sagra della Polenta, which takes place in the middle of September each year and is now in its 38th edition. Over a week has passed and I’ve finally digested all of the polenta I consumed and can now write about the experience with a clear head.
A sagra (plural: sagre) is a festival that revolves around a local food. There is a sagra for nearly everything you can imagine – wine, chestnuts, mushrooms, pecorino, porchetta, snails, frogs. If you eat it, most likely there is a sagra for it.
While a sagra revolves around food, often there is also music – live bands which usually include the local heros of the town including the barber or butcher; dancing – complete with a makeshift dance floor; and other fair-like festivities (regretfully no “drown the clown”.)
Polenta, which is made of cornmeal, was once considered a food only good enough for peasants. The most popular ways to prepare polenta are as a thick porridge or as a dense “loaf” that is sliced and either grilled or fried. Either way, it is often eaten with a variety of sauces. To get a better idea of just how many, I consulted my cookbook “Le Ricette Regionali Italiane” (Regional Italian Recipes – a culinary bible with 1,206 pages) which documents 23 different ways of preparing polenta.
Most of you have probably tasted polenta, but how many have actually attempted to make it from scratch? (instant doesn’t count). While the preparation of the polenta itself is straight forward, be prepared to sweat. I’ve often wondered how Italian nonnas get those trucker biceps. Polenta would be a fair guess, considering that the preparation requires 40 minutes of constant stirring. If you are cooking with someone else, I suggest taking shifts. (hint: polenta thickens quickly, so take the first shift.)
While at the moment I’m not ambitious enough to translate a polenta recipe from Le Ricette Regionali Italiane, I’ll try one in the coming week and post it here, complete with translations and conversions. In the meantime, if you can’t wait for me to get it together, the web is overflowing with polenta recipes. (I haven’t tried any of these from the link provided, so don’t hold me responsible.)
New York friends – Here are some good sources for italian foods and products:
Coluccio and Sons in Bensonhurst
Not willing to make the trip to Brooklyn? Try:
DiPaolo Selects in the Lower East Side
Buon Italia in Chelsea Market