There are very few elements of Italian cooking that us Brits have left unexplored. In all fairness, we’ve never been too shy to put our own twist on the classics; after all, the authenticity of the Hawaiian pizza is pretty suspect. However, as of yet polenta has been practically unconquered: all the more reason to embrace the recent opening of La Polenteria in London’s Soho. Polenta really does have it all. It’s versatile, gluten-free, and when bolstered with butter and cheese, irresistibly decadent. At La Polentaria, this oft-neglected ingredient is given centre stage.
I visit on a deathly cold Saturday afternoon. I’d be amazed if there’s any better time for unctuous carbs than a grey day in February. A quick look at the menu and it’s obvious that the concept of ground cornmeal has been pushed to the very limits of the imagination. Here, polenta is served with fruit, baked in cupcakes, grilled in salads and smothered with goulash. I couldn’t help but worry that the simplicity of this ingredient might be undermined. However, I was soon shown that this traditional side dish could quite easily become the star of the show. The Tuscan Sausages with Borlotti Beans melted into a creamy bed of polenta. The sauce was rich, the sausages punchy and the polenta perfectly executed.
Any trip to Italy will tell you that simplicity is key. Pizza toppings are kept to a minimum, pasta is kept simple and salad is frugally dressed. Polenta – quick to cook and cheap to buy – is the perfect example of Italian rusticity. Polenta smothered with maple syrup might cause a bit of stir in Northern Italy, but it just proves the versatility – and deliciousness - of this humble ingredient.