Pignoletto Rosso Polenta, Oh My!

You’ve had polenta, right? Probably commercial and quite yellow. It’s ok.

Last night, after some stormy weather, it seemed time for one of those meals with the kilo haul of polenta we purchased at the Pinarolo market in the Piemonte region, after Marla of Bella Baita made sure we found the right vendor. We snagged us a bag of stone ground corn from an antique variety that almost went extinct after the war, Pignoletto Rosso. Was it different in our polenta than the “normal” variety of ground corn? You betcha.

I made some rabbit cooked in white wine with onions and carrots and a couple of fresh bay leaves a kind soul at the market gave us. Rabbit Cooked Long and Slow, I call it. Along side it was a pot of salted, steaming water for the polenta. (Don’t undersalt the water; it’s important. Taste it.) I let the corn flutter down, little by little, into the simmering water, then whisked it a bit and let it simmer, also long and slow. The two parts of the meal came to the triumphant moment together. The kitchen was warm. The meal had corrected the frisky anger of the weather and all was right with the world.

I put the polenta in the corner of a bowl, and the rabbit bits on the side, then dribbled the pan juices over the whole deal.

It was a triumph! All you need is heirloom corn ground by a big, slow stone wheel. All of that is important.

Is it any surprise that slow is best? And let’s talk about the corn flour that makes polenta a joy to eat.

Pignoletto Rosso Polenta

So what is Pignoletto Rosso?

Pignoletto Rosso is a ruddy colored corn that was popular in the 1700s in Italy for turning into polenta or cookies or adding to breads. Corn was much cheaper than wheat at the time, so it became accessible to all in the northern regions like Piemonte. The key is that corn can grow easily in a garden. All you need to do is dry the ears in the sun on your patio and then use a common mill, often water driven, with big stone wheels grinding together to get the dried corn into the polenta flour stage, whereby it can be stored and used as needed by simply boiling it in salted water. This is what they still do in the territory of the Lunigiana, where I live.

Pignoletto Rosso Polenta from Azienda Agricola Marcello Drago

Wheat, on the other hand, requires an enormous amount of land. You can’t grow enough in your little garden. Then the wheat needs to be processed into a fine flour and then again into bread. It needs a strong alliance between the rich who have the land and machinery, and the poor who do the planting and harvesting work. The rich will demand a profit, and that adds to the price. The poor working folks eat polenta, if they can afford it.

Then came the war, and the chaos and disruption changed everything. Pignoletto Rosso was nearly lost.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s work was started to find those last farmers who were still sowing ancient varieties of corn, including Pignoletto Rosso. Enough was found that it was possible to bring production back up. Hurray to that.

So now we can taste this fine corn, but there’s another little thing that makes a difference in the final product. Stone grinding is by its nature slow. You don’t run the risk of “cooking” the corn by the faster rotating stainless steel cylinders used in commercial production. It’s the same with fine dry pasta; the artisan brands are a very light beige color because they’re often dried naturally, where commercial versions are sped along by drying at a higher temperature, changing the color to a much darker beige and altering the taste.

This applies also to white flour:

Stone-ground flour can be recognized by its irregular grain size, more intense aroma and flavor, containing more bran and germ than freshly harvested wheat. Despite its coarse appearance, stone milling returns fine flours that retain the most valuable virtues of the grain, which are more nutritious and more digestible. The process takes place cold, with no heat shock to the grains: passing under the stone, the flour thus retains all the water-soluble vitamins, minerals, trace elements and other noble and vital parts of the grain. — MOLINO SQUILLARIO

So now you know the things that went into my meal. I hope you’ve enjoyed the journey as much as I enjoyed eating the food that led to this article.

(Find out more about the gardener who grew the corn in my possession: Marcello Drago)

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