Corn is not originally from Italy, but arrived in Venice through Eastern trade routes around 1400, shortly before Columbus discovered America. Polenta was not made from corn until hundreds of years later; corn itself was not introduced into Europe until 1650.
Pulemntum was the staple cuisine of Roman soldiers, whose field ration consisted of two pounds of grain. The soldiers would toast the grain on a hot stone oven fire, crush it, and store it in their haversacks. When they stopped and constructed a bivouac, the soldiers would grind the grain to a gruel-like consistency, and boil it to form porridge. The soldiers would consume it in this form, or allow it to harden into a semi-leavened cake.
As time passed, the basic ingredients involved in the preparation of polenta changed as well: millet and smelt were replaced by barley. When popular tastes agreed that barley was too bland, it was substituted with the ancient grain far, which was more palatable type of wheat than smelt.
Curiously enough, polenta, when allowed to harden on a hot stone served as the first bread. What we identify today as bread was unknown in ancient times largely because of two reasons: First, technology did not allow for grain to be ground fine enough for flour. As milling methods improved, the crushed grains of pulmentum were processed into farina – the first genuine flour.
Second, yeast, the ingredient necessary when making bread was very difficult to acquire, and exceedingly expensive; for in those times, it was grown primarily in Gaul. If we were to travel as far back as the centuries immediately preceding Christ’s birth, yeast was most often made from residual dough which had been allowed to ferment.
To manufacture genuine flour was still very tedious, and polenta remained the preference of aristocrats and towns people alike. Small amounts of flour were purchased by Roman aristocrats who could afford the luxury, and was used to powder their noses! As life allowed more specialisation in fields of occupation, The Roman Empire’s first professional cooks emerged, and the dish began to take a variety of different forms.
– Article in La Buona Tavola 7/10/99 by Marianna Gatto