The October 2011 Food Tour to Piedmont will be visiting Mulino Marino too! Below is Ari’s story of his visit there. -Jillian
Polenta: A Tale of Poverty and Pride
by Ari Weinzweig
To see the pride side of the Italian relationship with polenta, you could take the same trip I did a few years back, to visit one of the best little polenta mills in the Piedmont. This is the region in the upper left-hand corner of the map of Italy that starts in the north at the Alps, and descends down southward until it runs up against the Italian Riviera. Like the rest of northern Italy, the Piedmont has a 300-year-old tradition of growing, drying, grinding and cooking corn. And the Marinos are carrying that tradition forward with enormous enthusiasm.
The Best Little Polenta Mill in Italy?
I can’t say with certainty that the mill of the Marino family makes THE best polenta in Italy—there are a handful of other small mills scattered around Italy that may well make similarly superb products. But I can tell you that the Marinos’ polenta is so far superior to that of the commercial brands that it seems almost another product altogether.
The day we went, it was a wonderfully sunny autumn afternoon and the air was cool, dry and deliciously crisp. The mill sits in the tiny town of Cossano Belbo, high in the hills of the Piemonte. It’s near the truffle town of Alba, not all that far from coastal Liguria, the land of the Italian Riviera. About an hour’s drive down from Turin, you exit the autostrada, cross over the river and head up a small hill, before turning to the right, into the Marino’s mill yard. Inside the gate, there’s room for half a dozen cars to park, or, alternatively, for plenty of corn to dry at the end of the harvest. On the right side is the old works; on the left, a building which houses a newer, more industrial, roller mill. Off to one side is a more modern home, where one of the Marino sons lives with his family. At the back is the old family house cum office, where, happily, a few hours later, we had the opportunity to eat platefuls of the family’s freshly ground polenta.
The old mill room is small, maybe 15 by 15 feet square. It looks like something out of the 19th century, or maybe like a museum piece created to teach modern youths about 19th century milling. The back half of the space is taken up by a raised, reinforced, wooden platform, upon which sit two pairs of powerful granite millstones. The set on the left is for grinding wheat, the one on the right for cutting corn. Unlike those used to press olives—which stand up on edge—the stones used for milling grain lie horizontally, one above the other. Each is about ten inches thick, and roughly four feet across. A trio of steel strips wraps the outer edges of each. The sets of stones sit inside square, well-worn wooden frames, each about five feet across. The stones spin steadily, if slowly by modern standards. Today the mill is powered by electricity, but it was water powered up until the 1950s.
As in almost every old millhouse I’ve ever visited, the Marino’s have a complex, almost comedic, spaghetti-like set up of old wooden gears, pipes, augurs, wires and widgets of various shapes and sizes that make up the works of the mill. Hanging above the spinning stones is a wooden spout that flows out from a hopper holding the dried corn. As the tube vibrates, corn kernels are dropped down into an opening in the center of the moving millstones to begin the grinding process. A steady stream of new yellow polenta pours out another spout below the stones. A hand-carved, well worn, wooden “basket,” with three-inch thick sides, and about two feet long at its most oval-line ends, is used to catch the milled grain as it tumbles out. Hanging on the wall behind the stones is an assemblage of weathered wooden tools, the color of dark leather.
Born to Mill
As we walked the yard, I inquired about the history of the Marino’s mill. I admit, I was hoping to hear some romantic story. Perhaps polenta making had been in the family for 500 years? Or maybe the Marinos were the first Italians to grind corn after Columbus’ return voyage from America? But as it turns out, the Marinos are actually relatively new to milling. A mere three generations—the youngest of which is only in its early teens—have worked the mill. Granted, by American expectations of stability that may seem staunchly solid. But it’s little more than a baby by Italian standards.
Felice (pronounced “Fell-eé-chay”) Marino, the father and polenta patriarch, was born in 1922. About 5’6″, with thin gray hair, and a gray cap, he’s still surprisingly active in the work of the mill. Hand extended, he smiles at me and says, “Marino”—first names are usually forgotten in rural Italian introductions. His hands are rough, but his demeanor is soft. The fingers are broad, well worn from 45 years of milling, with some the thickest fingernails I’ve ever seen.
I casually ask Felice if he grew up here at the mill. Many artisans in Italy spend their entire lives in the same spot working at the same profession, the question was almost a throwaway. So I was caught off guard when he responded with an emphatic, “No!” It’s rare to find Italians relocating to small villages like this one—I wonder if maybe he moved out here from the city as part of some post-war back-to-the-land movement? “No,” he continues, “I’m from over there,” he says, pointing his bent forefinger at a spot high up on the opposite side of the valley. “In another village, up in the mountains.” In America “here” might easily mean merely anywhere in the same state. The town Felice is from might, at most, be five miles away. But in rural Italy, “here” is only this village. Everywhere else is, by definition, “there.”
Over on the other side of the valley, Felice grew up in a family of farmers. But he seemed fated to end up a miller. As a boy he worked as a day laborer, carrying grain to what is now the Marino’s mill. Later his sister married a miller. The older he got the more he was drawn to milling. “In those days,” he said, “there were only three things you could do: religion, medicine, or work with your hands.” In 1955, at the age of 33, Felice followed his heart, left the family farm, and bought out the ready-to-retire miller who’d employed him as a youth. At that time, he told me, “there were nine other mills within 10 kilometers of this one.” Today, his is the only one left. He points to places around the valley, reciting a rosary of names for the now-vanished mills of an earlier era.
As we walk, Ferdinando and Flavio, Felice’s sons, enthusiastically explain the milling to us, answering questions, sharing stories, demonstrating the workings of each piece of equipment. Ferdinando, the older of the two, has a handsome, wears a well-trimmed beard and is contagiously enthusiastic about his cornmeal. Flavio, the younger brother, looks much like Ferdinando but younger and without the beard. He seems to be the more technically oriented of the two. Grandson Fulvio, Ferdinando’s younger son, follows, is even more enthusiastic than his father, adding to the conversation with family stories and anecdotes. The kid is incredible. A natural born leader, he’s like 12 going on 24. He carries himself with an assertiveness and confidence that many men never develop at any age.
When we return to the mill room, Grandfather Marino stands off to the side. Although he looks like he’s listening to the conversation, I know he’s paying more attention to the polenta than to the people. As the rest of us talk, he casually, quietly, sticks his hand under the flow to check the feel of the newly ground meal. Saying nothing, he adjusts the wheel, checks the feel again, turns back to the conversation at hand.
Best I could understand it, the old milling system the Marinos use is known as “palmenti;” the bottom stone stays still while the top one turns. Put your palms together parallel to the floor, then turn the top hand slowly and you’ll get the idea. The bottom stone has a pattern of deeper grooves shooting out from its center at off-angles, interwoven, in turn, with a tapestry of similar, but slimmer, slots. The two stones never touch but are close enough that as the corn catches in the grooves, the kernels are actually cut—not ground—into their various components. The thinner grooves then grind the polenta as finely as needed. The centermost ring of the stones is known as the cuore, or “heart.” Moving outward, the sections of the stones are known as “the stomach,” and then, the outermost ring, “the binda,” meaning “jack.” The narrower grooves guide the newly ground corn toward the outer edge of the stones, where it falls into the wooden frame and then out the spout into baskets below. At the same time, the deeper “canals” etched into the stone allow outside air to pass between the wheels, protecting the grain from overheating.
As heavy as the stones are I’d have thought they simply stayed in their spots, steady and well-secured for a good 10 or 20 years. Seriously, who’d want to move something so huge? To ensure effective operation, the stones must be removed from their housing a couple of times a month (after roughly 15 to 20 tons of corn have been milled), so that their channels can be checked, then re-cut as needed. Later I learn that American millers call this “dressing the stones.” After removing the wheels from their housing, the brothers run a board with natural red pigment over the wheels to mark the spots where the surface has been ground down. They then set to work with an old wood-handled hammer and a chisel to get the grooves back into shape. The hammering is hardly heavy-handed; it takes skill, and a delicate touch with the tools. Different hammers are used to chisel out different groove depths. Most all of the pigment that’s marked the surfaces has to be removed before the stones are again ready for use.
The Marinos proudly—and repeatedly—point to a stack of four extra sets of stones sitting off to the side of the yard. Since the stones can last decades, such a stockpile signals a miller’s commitment to the future of their work. Talk about slow inventory turns—the Marinos have a multi-generation supply.
Meal in the Mill: Polenta Four Ways
In a sense, eating polenta with the Marinos was a singular experience—a big family meal, the kind I fantasize Italian food artisans always have. At the same time, though, it wasn’t really all that different from the Friday night (Sabbath) family meals I grew up with. We could have easily be eating with my family back in Chicago instead of the Piedmont. Dozens of family photos hang randomly on wood paneled walls. The women keep mostly to the kitchen, cooking, conversing, and stirring, emerging only occasionally to offer up another course and check the group’s progress on the last. Meanwhile, the Marino men and the guests sit at the table, where almost everyone seems to talk at the same time. The kids wander in and out of the room at random moments. As we talk polenta, the dog barks annoyingly. Finally one of the grandsons grabs a breadstick off the table and flings it out the open door. The dog pursues his edible prize into the yard, and the grandson shuts the door behind him, dropping the decibel level down a notch or two. As each course comes from the kitchen it’s accompanied by big smiles on female faces, coupled with concern that the guests aren’t getting enough to eat. This is my first visit to the Marinos, but I keep feeling like I’ve been at this meal a thousand times before.
Any illusion of déjà vu ends when we start to eat. This is nothing like what I grew up with. Baskets come to the table filled with thick slices of bread, hand cut from a pair of square, whole grain loaves. One is made from farro, known in English as “emmer” (though it’s often mislabeled as spelt), one of the ancient, Etruscan grains of the area. The other bread is made of Monococco, which apparently is even older than the emmer. All the grain has, of course, been freshly milled by the Marinos. You can smell the “scent of the germ oil” in the bread, they say. “It’s the best advertisement,” Ferdinando Marino, the oldest of the brothers, mentions. “The fragrance of the scent of nature,” chimes in Flavio, the younger of the two. Both breads show plenty of air holes, a sign of a well-made, traditional loaf. Light brown, with a nice, nutty flavor, they’re more akin to American whole wheat than something I’d have associated with Italy. But then I guess the Etruscans certainly wouldn’t have considered polenta Italian either since they lived a few thousand years before Columbus brought corn back from the Americas.
The first course is composed of simple slices of salame cotto, lardo, and pancetta (more on each of these in a minute). We pull the pieces from big platters, set them on slices of the warm brown bread, and eat as is. All are delicious, and, unfortunately, not really available over here; with half a dozen exceptions—led by Prosciutto di Parma—the cured pork products of Europe aren’t yet allowed into the United States.
The salame cotto is made from pork trimmings, seasoned with spices then stuffed into a natural casing. Simmered for hours to make it tender, it’s typical of a poor region like the Piemonte, where no part of the pig was allowed to go to waste. Served warm, it has the texture of a coarsely ground sausage, with a slightly sweet, savory, meaty flavor. Pancetta is probably familiar by name to many Americans, where it’s often referred to as “Italian bacon.” But this is a whole ‘nother piece of pork than what we’re used to. In North America we eat pancetta cooked. But at the Marinos—and in much of Italy—it’s standard service on upscale antipasto platters, in which case it’s consumed raw, in thin, prosciutto-like, slices.
Lardo, on the other hand, is almost unknown in America. The name alone is enough to put people off its path. Our loss. In Italy, lardo is about as lavish an antipasto offering as foie gras would be in France. To make it, the butcher uses what is essentially American bacon minus the meat. This snowy white fat is then rubbed with coarse salt, rosemary and other spices, then set aside to cure for a matter of months ‘til it’s ready to eat. About as tender as a slice of gently smoked salmon, lardo is pure, cured pork fat with a hint of herbs that pretty much melts in your mouth. You may well be thinking that this sounds terrible. It isn’t. It’s intensely rich, and very good. Eating it—and watching the relish with which Italians consume it—drives home for me once and for all the Italian argument that the fat on a prosciutto is essential to its flavor. If you still had any illusions that the meat—not the fat—matters most, a little lardo will certainly set you straight.
Polenta #1 Polenta Fritta
While we’re finishing up the cold antipasti, the polenta dishes start to surface. First comes polenta fritta—fried polenta. This is made by cutting cooked, cooled polenta into thin rectangles, coating them with additional, uncooked polenta, and then, finally, frying them in olive oil ‘til they’re the color and texture of crisp French fries. The polenta pieces are truly golden in color, both inside and out; it’s a shade so vibrant I’ve come to expect it only in advertising, but rarely in real life. “When you fry our polenta,” says Flavio proudly, “it gets more yellow.” He smiles, then adds, “When you fry industrial polenta, it gets gray.” Lightly crisp and slightly chewy on the outside from the coating of raw corn meal, the slices are tender and soft on the inside. It only takes about two bites before I can tell that this meal is going to be something special. The polenta pieces taste so sweet I ask if there’s sugar in the mix. “No!” comes the quick reply. “Just the polenta.”
“That’s it?” I ask to make sure I’ve understood correctly. “That’s it!” they say. “Just polenta.”
Polenta #2 Con Bacalao
The second course comes out of the kitchen on a wide white oval platter, fresh from the oven. Coin-shaped pieces of cornmeal—cut, again, from sheets of cooked, then cooled polenta—which have been quickly pan-fried in olive oil, then topped with a creamy sauce of salt cod and spices. The bacalao (salt cod) is soaked, then—I think—simmered in milk and water ‘til its tender. Finally, the fish is beaten with olive oil, which, author Anna Teresa Callen (one of the other guests) tells me forcefully, “must be of Liguria.” (“Or,” she adds, accurately, “of Garda, but that’s so expensive, it’s out of the question.” The point is that the oil must be delicate, not strong, or it will overwhelm the fish.)
“About how much oil?” I ask, starting to put together a recipe in my head. “As much oil as the fish will hold,” I’m told. Then add chopped parsley. The sauce is creamy, but sturdy enough to sit atop the polenta pieces without running off. The eight Italians at the table argue vociferously over the proper way to prepare the bacalao. I focus, instead, on the polenta. Then they veer off into an argument over how and when salt cod first arrived in the land-locked Piedmont. Most likely, they decide, it was brought up into the mountains from the coast, in trade for the above-mentioned Ligurian oil, anchovies and other fish from the coast.
Polenta #3 Soft Coarse Polenta
As the salt cod conversation continues, a big, beautiful white bowl of just-cooked polenta emerges from the kitchen in the arms of one of the Marino women. The texture is akin to that of thick, homemade mashed potatoes. It’s incredibly sweet, with . . . what can I say? . . . an intensely appealing flavor of corn. It’s so good, so much more flavorful than any other polenta I’ve ever had that it makes me think back to something I heard years ago from Irish cheesemaker Veronica Steele. She declared one day that, “the difference between a cheese made from raw milk and another from pasteurized milk is the difference between a real sheep and plastic one.” In this case, it’s the difference between real corn and some sort of emasculated, industrial, Quaker Oats rendition.
Amazed at how good it is, I ask one of the Mrs. Marinos what’s in it. “Polenta,” she says matter of factly. I sit quietly for a minute before she realizes I’m looking for a little more information. “The polenta,” she repeats, “. . . with water, and salt.” I sense that she’s starting to look at me a little strangely. It’s not that I doubt her. I’m just sort of stunned by just how good something so incredibly simple can taste. The polenta—the Marinos’ cornmeal—makes all the difference.
Accompanying the polenta is something I didn’t expect to find in land-locked Piemonte: a tomato sauce, laced with tuna, coarsely chopped hard-cooked eggs, garlic and lots of olive oil. Again, the impact of being on the trade route from the coast to the mountains makes itself felt in the presence of the fish.
Polenta #4 Soft Fine Polenta
Moments later, another big white bowl arrives, this one filled with steaming hot, finely ground polenta. Texturally, it’s slightly softer and a bit moister than the coarse ground, but I’m sure that’s a function of a higher ratio of water to corn meal. It takes less time to cook the fine stuff. Only an hour. Personally, I prefer the coarser polenta, but they’re both powerfully good.
The sauce for this dish is similar to that served with polenta #3, but this one uses anchovies instead of tuna, and has a higher dose of hot pepper and chopped garlic. In dialect, they call it bagna d’infern (meaning “bath of hell” or “the devil’s sauce”). When I hear the name it reminds me that the Piedmont is also the land of bagna cauda, the “hot bath” of garlic, anchovies and olive oil. The Piemontese, I think to myself, must really be fond of bathing.
Here, I was hoping for a cake made from polenta, but my hope was in vain. I’m sure the Marinos figured they’d already offered up more than enough cornmeal for one afternoon’s eating. We did, happily, get some delicious pears cooked in Dolcetto di Alba wine. The pears are very ripe, and simmered with sugar, cinnamon, and cloves. The sauce is reduced to make a thick, sweet syrup, the texture of a really old Balsamic vinegar, which clings prudently to the poached pears.
Passion and Polenta
Ironically, interestingly, the Marinos seem to have set up a future for the mill that appears to be as solid as the millstones. Felice’s sons and grandsons all appear to be extremely committed to continuing. Those extra sets of hard to-find-old millstones sit in the yard, waiting to be called into use when future generations beckon. Perhaps most importantly, demand for their polenta and wheat flour is stronger than ever. Despite its higher price, restaurants and locals alike line up to buy it.
“Why is your polenta so popular?” I ask.
Ferdinando and Flavio answer adamantly, and almost in unison, “The flavor!” Having eaten immense amounts of it over the last couple hours, it would be hard to argue with them. In fact, I’m getting ready to join the line of buyers, by laying the groundwork to get some to Ann Arbor to sell in Ann Arbor. Having seen the mill, and listened to them talk over lunch, it’s pretty clear that they’ve gone to great lengths to make sure that their polenta is something special. Still, it’s obvious there are easier ways to make a living.
“Why work so hard?” I wonder aloud.
“For Papa!” Flavio says laughing. Although the father is small in size, and now formally defers to his sons in the business, it’s clear from the conversation that Felice Marino is more of an emotional force in the family than one might guess at first glance. “And,” adds Ferdinando, “un gran passione.” A grand passion for great polenta.
That they have that passion is obvious. When they talk about it, the Marinos’ eyes light up. And having dined on the stuff almost daily for decades, here they are, still eating it with relish. Throughout, our conversation is peppered with plenty of laughter. Hearty handshakes abound. The whole family exhibits an authenticity, a passion, an enthusiasm that comes only from being proud of your work and at peace with yourself.
This enthusiasm, this passion for what they do, gets me thinking of what we do back home. I think that same passion that business people from other industries are often drawn to at Zingerman’s. They see this “grand passion” and they want it. Mistakenly, they think it comes just from being close to the food, so they set themselves up in a food business, only to find out that as great as great food can be, it won’t ever make you a new person. Living the reality of the “grand passion” isn’t easy, nor is an accident of fate. I think it’s a choice. When people like Marinos choose this passion, they consciously give up any number of the easier, more financially rewarding paths available in order to stick to something we really believe it. As Paul reminded me the other day, “You have to give something up to get something.” The artisans must give up the chance to, maybe, make more money, or take more time off, in order to produce something for which they have that “gran passione.”