The History of Venetian Polenta and a Sweet Market Breakfast

The first products distributed at the Rialto Market, in the 6th century AD, were bread and water. Perhaps it’s no co-incidence that on Campiello dei Meloni, in the San Polo Market area, there’s a street food bar called Acqua e Mais. The “bread” baked with maize flour was called polenta, and it comes sweet and savoury. Easy to prepare, with a thousand possibilities, just a perfect kind of cibo di strada – street food in particular in the winter.

Water and maize have been the main ingredients for bread in Venice. Every location has developed its own bread, after all. At first, I found it surprising that maize wasn’t imported in big quantities to Venice after Columbus had returned from his trip to the Americas. In fact, Venetian merchants did import a certain amount, they were too curious not to do that. They had had, however, an endemic grain variety called “grano turco” ever since … If you take a look at the ancient cookbooks, or others that I go to, such as La Cucina Tradizionale Veneta, you will find that granoturco was introduced from the Levant, probably from northern Persia, alongside with a host of other luxurious ingredients Venetians loved trading with.

So there were “yellow varieties of grain” growing in the Veneto ever since. In fact, they are still here and have been used to bake the Venetian biscuits called zaleti (yellow biscuit breads) for the explorers and merchants to remain healthy during their sea voyages.

My favorite zaléti at the Rialto Market were made by Franco Carlon, who also offered incredibly soft and tasty polenta-coconut cakelets called cestoni al cocco … but by now, these are childhood memories.

I buy Venetian farina di polenta, polenta flour, which is now produced outside Rovigo, around Treviso and Vicenza, at the Casa del Parmigiano, a deli located at the Rialto Market on Campo Bella Vienna.

As announced, a favorite autumn breakfast in my family is made from polenta. As we still get summer fruit like peaches, plums and nectarines, and also wood berries, these could become the sweet ingredient to garnish our polenta cake. Or, we also love home-made fruit gels and jam.

The other ingredient is home-made lavender syrup, from which we will make lavender icing, and to bring back summer vibes, I used some red currant gel to bake, and a few leaves of water mint and lemon balm

To prepare the pancakes, just substitute half the amount of flour with farina di polenta, polenta flour, prepare the dough with sparkling mineral water (!). Flavor with coconut sugar, cinnamon, lemon balm and water mint leaves. Pour the mixture into a pan, place a tiny spoonful of marmellata al ribes rosso, or your favorite fruit gel or jam in the center. Fry on both sides in olive oil, then garnish with cinnamon, sugar flakes, honey and a teaspoon lavender icing or syrup. Here you go 🙂

Tomorrow, we are going to take a look at our market lunch menu … we’ll start with a special creamy fall soup, based on patate americane, herbs, spices and of course, squash !

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