Our Polenta

Apr 2, 14 • BlogNo CommentsRead More »

Cristian Lascu, Editor in Chief of the Romanian edition of National Geographic, is telling us the story of this tasty Romanian brand.

Cristian Lascu and his polenta. Photo by Cristian Lascu

Cristian Lascu and his polenta. Photo by Cristian Lascu


I put on my gloves, I get a good grip of the hot handles and head for the table. Things stir up, the cameras are ready to capture the moment. There is a loud thud on the wooden plate. Among the clouds bursting from under the tin pot there comes the sun of a big polenta, glowing above the trays with cheese and cream, fish with garlic sauce, mushroom stew, fried eggs with nettles.

„But your polenta also goes with the fruit salad”, my friends flatter me, suggesting that I should teach an advanced polenta course for their wives, girlfriends or mothers.

This simple gesture of dropping a polenta on the table, which today is an exotic and festive event filmed and photographed by guests, used to happen every day in the Romanian homes. Since bread was baked rarely, the housewife, in order to feed a large family – a husband, several children, the elderly, the hired workers, had to make polenta for a hungry dozen.

Let me see you try to boil 7 liters of water, salt it right, add the maze flour properly, crush the lumps, stir the volcano crater all the time in order to avoid the shame of having an uncooked or smoked polenta and then you will understand the saying ”You are in for a polenta!” That is, you are in for trouble. Thus has the illustrious historian Neagu Djuvara explained the Romanian saying. And a woman has to know how to make it: ”I would marry, yes I would / But I do not know how to make maze flour / This wouldn’t be so bad / But I do not know how to make polenta” reads a wedding shout picked up in 1884 by Edward Braniste, rediscovered for us by Radu Anton Roman in his landmark book ”Food, Wines and Romanian Traditions”.

Romanians define themselves as a polenta people and Romania is the land of polenta. Nowadays, this dish has become a national phrase, but it lacks a proper marketing to make it a successful commercial cooking brand, like the Hungarian goulash, the Bulgarian yogurt, the Turkish saslîk or even the Mexican tortillas, a simple baked corn cake, which is served with chili paste and burns the intestines of millions worldwide daily. From the traditional Romanian cookbook the polenta entered in the history and cultural anthropology book.

”The polenta does not explode,” wrote not long ago The New York Times, seemingly disappointed that the anti-austerity and anti-reform protests in Bucharest were bloodless, unlike the case of more nervous neighbors. In other words, the wide world found out that the polenta eaten for generations had induced a goofy gene into the Romanian DNA, which had turned the Romanians into a sloppy people enduring any humiliation. It is a misconception which does wrong to the polenta.

On the contrary, it is scientifically proven that an excess of bread increases the body weight and makes one drowsy. According to a study made by French researchers, quoted by the magazine ”Science et Vie”, observations on a series of subjects, including students during the exams, showed that the ingestion of gluten in bread slightly ”slows down” brain activity and diminishes the aggressive instinct. The Romanians, who during the last century have suffered various humiliations, occupation regimes, dictatorships, excesses from the arrogant elites, have been all this time the first bread-eating European nation.

One can’t help remembering the bread queues – distributed on food cards! – during the Ceausescu era. But the heroes who have fought bravely and won their independence at Plevna and Grivi]a, the winners at Marasesti or the rebels in 1907 were polenta eaters from father to son. And the bread folklore, which seems to have exceeded that of the polenta, suggests a certain softness: „Good as fresh bread”… „No matter how bad the bread is”… „He’s earning his bread”… „He’s just eating some bread”…

Did Mircea cel Batran and Stefan cel Mare eat polenta? This is a classic trick question for students. In fact, the answer is not quite as simple as it may seem. Surely, corn could not have reached the Old World before the discovery of America in 1492. Then some time had to pass before it spread across Europe, where it was used mostly for feeding the animals. And from there to the polenta… there is some bread to be eaten.

Corn has reached the Danube Principalities two centuries later. In Wallachia corn agriculture was introduced after 1680 by the ruler {erban Cantacuzino and in Moldavia by Constantin Mavrocordat. So the ruler Stefan had no polenta next to his cabbage rolls. Yet Traian and Decebal did eat polenta. Not only the Dacians, but also the Romans made a dense porridge of millet boiled in water mixed with milk or in whey with cream, therefore the antique balmos was very tasty and nutritious.
Today such a polenta would be a luxury reserved for gastronomic archeology enthusiasts, for millet has a much lower productivity than corn and is available on the market in limited quantities.

The term corn comes from the ancient millet, since it can be found in the medieval food terminology and in much older sayings. The ethnographer Ion Ghinoiu says that ”in the Apuseni Mountains, Vrancea and }ara Padurenilor, the wake was a great joy, the people were laughing loud” and shouted at the dead: you have lived your life, you have eaten your corn. But, says Ioan Ghinoiu, this saying could be much older, from the time when the weak old people in some communities across the Danube became a burden, were given millet polenta in a bag and they were sent from home for good.

The success of corn was great and polenta spread quickly. In the nineteenth century, large farms required more and more seasonal workers, who ”summered” working far from home and therefore from the ovens where the housewives baked bread. But with a bag of corn in the wagon, a block of salt and a tin pot one could quickly cook a warm meal.

Not to mention the shepherds, because it’s hard to imagine how the shepherds cooked at the sheep cot before the polenta was invented. There was polenta with onions, dock, nettles, dandelion, orach, wild garlic – almost any herb becomes a dish next to polenta. Or polenta with mushrooms, wallowed in an egg, greased with lard or a ball of cheese, with vegetable and grease, with plum jam. For centuries, this was our ancestors’ daily meal, at least on weekdays.

During holidays, it was time for polenta with cabbage rolls, a „Romanian” trademark mix. Professor Neagu Djuvara says that polenta was also successful for another reason. Aforetime, the Turks did not eat corn products. When they found corn in a peasant’s barn, they became disappointed and left. But they did clear the neighbor’s holes filled with wheat. For this reason, more and more ploughmen turned to corn.

But even more important was the fact that corn had a high productivity in our climatic conditions and could be used in its entirety: the flour was eaten by humans, the beans fattened the poultry in the yard, the stalks fed the cattle during winter and the dry cobs – ciocalaii, as they are called – were burned in stoves, especially in the plains, where the forests were getting thinner. The corn husks were used for braiding. Popcorn, invented long before the cinema, was crunched by the village women gathered at the corvee for weaving, during long winter evenings.
In addition, corn is a versatile crop; it thrives on heaths but also likes sunny mountain slopes and is resistant to pests. The maze flour has a longer life when kept in bags which let air in and it is said that unaired maze flour produces weevils. In turn, maze flour keeps some foods fresh. Following a country custom, I usually keep eggs in the basement, in a wooden bowl full of maze flour.

The Institute of Ethnography and Folklore ”Constantin Brailoiu” at the Romanian Academy has published in Volume 3 of the monumental „Romanian Ethnographic Atlas” the map of the corn dishes and spread, with its regional variations. Polenta is ubiquitous. It is not included in this atlas, but we may add that polenta, along with Latin language, brings us closer to our brothers over the Prut River, where „maliga with roast meat” is a national food.

Like bread, rice or potatoes, polenta is the ballast which should make you full. Before the era of the silhouette nightmare and the calories’ arithmetic, the simple, weary man had to “fill his belly” and get up full from the table. Then, the consistent, shepherd polenta fully managed to do so while bread was less popular. Country doctors in the early twentieth century struggled to convert peasants to bread, to get rid of the pellagra, a disease caused by the chronic deficiency of niacin, a vitamin complex, caused by poor nutritional conditions based on the excess of maze flour. This was a poverty disease.

Today, with the invention of the fluid, rash polenta, many say they are hungry soon after eating. However, this “weakness” of the polenta could become an asset in an era obsessed with obesity. Surely, I have not heard of any diet based on polenta. But let’s see what the experts say. Dr. Ligia Alexandrescu is a very experienced nutritionist expert. “I recommend polenta to active and healthy people. It’s low in cholesterol, sodium, saturated fat.

It may be in the diets of those who want to maintain a constant weight, but my suggestion is to choose a rash polenta, which is less dense. 100 grams of rash polenta (not from maze flour) produces only 70 calories, based on the metabolization of 15 grams of carbohydrates, 2 grams of protein, 1-2 grams of fiber. The cholesterol is practically zero. Instead, polenta contains the vitamins complex B, vitamin A and minerals such as calcium and iron.”

Ligia Alexandrescu prefers polenta made with country-made maze, which has more bran, thus a higher content of fiber and minerals. ”An important advantage is the lower percentage of gluten than other grain products, so it can be recommended for people intolerant to gluten.” One must not believe that polenta does not fatten. We know well that the „hogwash” that farmers give to the pigs is a stew thickened with maze.

It all depends on the caloric content of the combinations: it is one thing to have polenta with mushrooms, with, a not so fat fish, yogurt, feast cabbage rolls, and another thing to have it with fat cheese, swimming in butter and cream, with pork cabbage rolls and smoked meat. But above all, it depends on the quantity. Thus, the ideal dish is polenta… in moderate sizes.”

But is polenta more than just food? In an emancipated world, accustomed to luxurious food and global cooking, when in one’s neighborhood one can find sushi, hamburger, minced meat rolls, tzatziki, Chinese glazed duck and pizza the size of a wheel, what chance does the bulz stand? Can the traditional polenta sit at the table in the cosmopolitan company of worldwide culinary refinements?
A summary research shows that in the fancy restaurants in our country’s capital and other cities polenta is in almost all the menus and tables.
The polenta cuisine has a complex story. At first glance, a good polenta is one that is not bad. Just like with good water. And a bad polenta is easier to define: unsalted, uncooked, smoked, with lumps, too consistent, too soft… But there are some polentas which are better than some other good polentas. Nuances depend on the recipe, the gradations in homogeneity achieved through a good stirring, but most important on the quality of the maze flour.
Whoever dares prepare it but has not inherited the family polenta instinct can compensate with a scientific approach. The physics of the polenta is complex. Thus, in the primordial liquid, which is water, put salt with moderation. (17 ‰, which is the salinity of the Black Sea, would produce a rather unsalted polenta. 35 ‰, which is the salinity of the world ocean, would be too much. Something between them, about a spoon for a pot, is just fine).

Jacki Croitoru, a refined expert, suggests that we put a handful of maze flour from the very beginning, thus increasing the value of δ-Sigma – fluid viscosity. When water gets to the boiling point, which, at sea level is, as you know, 100° Celsius, we increasingly sprinkle maize flour, stirring moderately. In this way we reach an intermediate stage, a kind of corn soup, which, being denser, has a boiling temperature of 105° Celsius, maybe even 110°, which softens the more rebellious granules, making them pleasant for the tongue, and therefore the polenta cannot end up uncooked.

Gradually, our polenta becomes a lava out of which vapors under pressure erupt from the deep, – „sighing” as Radu Anton Roman would say, and still sufficiently fluid to gush hot volcanic bombs. So pay attention to labor protection!
Another physical phenomenon, which is frequent in nature and upsetting for us, occurs: the concretion by agglutination. This process has to do with the molecular attractions between the particles dispersed in a fluid. The surface electromagnetic forces of the superficial tension gather all the grains of maze.

In granular geological sediments, this phenomenon leads to round concretions, with a central core. Those spheroidal sandstones with a Brancusi look, called trovan]i, are well-known. In a magazine article I said that they are ”the lumps in the Sarmatian polenta”. But the comparison works both ways: a lump is a spherical concretion with an uncooked maze flour core. With an energetically wielded stirrer we shall destroy the electromagnetic forces, crushing the lumps.

We mix it all up to avoid the smoking of the bottom layer, which may compromise the polenta by adding it a stifling odor, typical for low-oxygen combustion. We add some flour and in a few minutes we reach the stage of magma. In the last phase, the polenta is baked on the edges, forming a crispy crust, with a special, excellent taste, allowing it to be separated from the pot. This is the theory of making polenta and one may think one has to study hard; in fact, sheep men and sheep women without a PhD make exceptional polentas on empirical bases, with recipes inherited from the old.

With an apparently neutral taste, polenta tames dishes with a prominent taste and makes them friendlier. Sheep pastrami, with its Mongolian steppes flavors, tempers its aggressiveness when confronted with the placid polenta. Minced meat rolls, sausages and everything with garlic go very nice with it. The same goes for fish stew or fish brine. ”One may catch the carp with polenta; when on the table, it also goes well with polenta” says Onel, a fishermen in Belciugatele, Calarasi County. But the gastronomic virtues of the polenta also address the more subtle olfactory cells. It enhances the taste of some dishes and highlights subtle flavors. How could one eat mushrooms with bread? But polenta is wonderful next to stew or mushroom cream. How would the Penteleu cheese or the Bran cheese in fir bark taste with pilaf?

A quintessence of many aspects of history, culture and even of our philosophy, we must not forget polenta. We make no illusions: the overwhelmed housewife and the householder who, once at home, collapses in front of the TV, do not stir in the pot for a quarter of hour. The time of the classic polenta has long gone. Maybe some patriotic producers will be able to produce instant maze flour, which, like some types of coffee, may turn in minutes in a quick and tasty polenta. An ancestral polenta gene within us could resonate well with a creative fast food based on polenta. For now, polenta sometimes makes us gather around a table and through its simple language reminds us that we are Romanians.