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Really Great Polenta
• Eight-Row Corn from the Marino Family: The Marinos are very much head-down, noses to the grindstone, sticking stubbornly and smilingly to their traditional regional cooking. They grow an antique variety of corn called Otto File. The name means "Eight Row" and is likely a very close descendant of the old--also eight-rowed--corns that would have come over with Columbus and crew. The grains--the corn kernels--are huge compared to what I'm used to seeing over here; each is bigger than the nail on your little finger. Yields, not surprisingly, are low. The corn is grown organically, field-ripened, and dried primarily in the sun when possible. The milling is done with old stones and the germ is left in. We bring it regularly from Italy and store it here under refrigerated conditions to protect its quality.
• Spin Rossa della Valsugana Polenta: Glenn Roberts at Anson Mills has embarked on what I think is now a lifelong mission to find amazing old corns and restore them to viable economic existence. We do sell, cook and eat many of the old varieties that he offers. And this very special polenta is one of the best. It's known in Italian as "Spin Rossa della Valsugana", which simply means the spiny red corn from the Valley of Sugana. When we first started serving it at the Roadhouse last year, it was the likely the FIRST commercial crop of this seed variety to be grown in the Americas in many centuries.
The Florianis family in Trentino (on the Eastern end of Italy) were the LAST ones in their region harvesting this variety of corn and for all anyone can tell, perhaps the last farmers anywhere growing it. They say that their family has grown this particular corn for generations as long as anyone can remember, likely since the 16th century. The corn was actually something people in the areas were ashamed of--polenta was a sign of poverty and the corn itself was considered to be coarse in appearance and flavor in comparison to fancier looking modern alternatives. When one of the Floriani sons sent a few dozen seeds to Glenn back in South Carolina, Glenn ate the dried corn "raw"--there wasn't enough to grind or cook--and was blown away by the flavor of it and wanted to get more to grow.
Glenn brought some of their seed corn back to the US and started growing it organically on about fifteen different farms around the country; the idea is to spread out the growing to protect the corn and make sure that it survives. Having been serving this amazing polenta at the Roadhouse on specials all year, I can tell you that it's pretty remarkable stuff. We've been cooking it with nothing more than water and salt and it's really pretty spectacularly flavorful. Buttery, rich, it tastes distinctly of corn and it's just really good.
PART III: The tastiest toppings for polenta, from butter to honey
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