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It was a late October afternoon and my friends and I were in Selci Sabina (pronounced "sell-chee sab-eena") for a couple of reasons. My reason for being there was simple. I love Italy and I was trying my best to figure out a way to be there more often and the most effective way for this to happen was to have a little house for my family and me to use. My friends were there because I insisted they meet my Italian friends and experience this beautiful part of the Lazio region.
My days were spent traversing the countryside looking at different dwellings. We looked at an abandoned, stone house perched on a hill overlooking the valley. We looked at an apartment that was bombed in WWII and has sat vacant since the mid 1940's. The walls were thick and deep. The floor was littered with charcoal and paper cups. Standing in the cold, dark room I felt a sense of belonging as if I had lived here before. In the jungle of a garden I discovered an old bombshell. It was about a foot and a half long, completely rusted out with an assortment of holes. I wish I had set it aside because on a return visit it was gone. Probably stolen by a local kid who now spins a fabulous tale about its demise.
My friend Luciana showed me around. She owns a wonderful resort called Villa Vallerosa that at one time served as a plantation for a prominent Italian family. Luciana and her husband, Luigi have turned the house into a wonderful resort with beautiful apartments. They have a pool that sits high above the valley. People from around the world come to relax in true Italian comfort and style.
Luciana planned a polenta fest for her local Italian friends and for all her international friends who had purchased property in the Sabina Valley. She called the foreigners "Sabinieri" (mezzi Sabini, mezzi stranieri - "half Sabine, half foreign") and even had t-shirts made up with Sabinieri boldly emblazoned on the front. My friends and I were included since I was a potential Sabiniero. I wanted in the club bad.
Luciana knows just about everyone in town and when she throws a party people from all walks of life show up. Stefano the builder, Renalto the architect, Anna Marie and Albert (the New Yorkers who bought a place in Casperia a few years back before the others caught on), were all there.
Marvi Emanuele, Stefano's wife, was there along with Teo and Annie from Holland, Barbara and Mike from Frankfurt, Sally from Australia and many others whose names I have forgotten, but whose mannerisms and personalities have been etched in my memory.
Luciana prepared for the party in a little barn next to the main house. She set up two long wooden tables. The wood was smooth and very clean as if it had just been sanded. Nearby Luigi had a fire blazing with a very large pot of water hanging over the burning wood. Luigi was waiting for it to boil at which time he would add the yellow cornmeal.
Luciana's helpers set up tables with sliced prosciutto and melon, cured meats, figs and big bowls of salad with radicchio and arugula (also called rocket, roquette, rugula and rucola). There were local cheeses produced at farms within a stone's throw of Villa Vallerosa. Inside Diana, Luciana's helper was cooking a hearty tomato sauce for the polenta. She had homemade sausages and was slow cooking cinghiale (wild boar) that would be immersed in the sauce to impart it with robust flavor.
Luigi slowly added the cornmeal to the boiling water and continuously stirred it with a long wooden spoon until the polenta came together. At the very end he added salt and then freshly grated pecorino cheese, locally made in the Sabina Valley.
Before the polenta had a chance to stiffen, Luigi poured it directly onto the long wooden tables in the barn. It spread out like a wave on a sandy shore, but stayed in place and slowly hardened enough to give it a nice texture. Diana then dipped a ladle into her sauce and drizzled it on the polenta. She placed tomatoes, sausages and cinghiale on the sauce all the way to the edge of the polenta. On the side she added plates of gorgonzola cheese.
Luciana gave a tremendous toast to love, life and the Sabinieri and then we ate and ate and ate. We stuffed ourselves until we could not eat any more. The polenta peeled off the table and into the mouths of the gluttonous Sabinieri.
The last word goes to my friend Luciana Pancera of Villa Vallerosa who commented:
"This is a typical Sabino way to eat polenta. It is called Polenta sulla spianatora (Polenta on the bench) and unlike the polenta made in the north (of Italy), the polenta has to be soft enough to slide along the wooden table and stay on it in such a way that all the people sat around it can just take as"much as possible with a fork, starting with the person at the front, then taking turns with those on the left and then the right."
by Bill Disselhorst, February 2006
Bill is a chef from Los Angeles and partner of the Italian Country Cooking School. The school is nestled in the Sabina Valley approximately 30 miles north of Rome.