Where I come from

Where I come from, the sky is a vast stage for clouds devising mad plays with light. It’s a theatre for giants, the steep rocks of the mountains lining the valley. Imitating the frills and laces of the ladies’ dresses. You can tell the weather by its holes, by the way.

Where I come from, there is a singular dish. It’s said to be had only in the Rhine valley. Made from ground maize, very similar to Italian polenta, but not the same. Ribel we call it (or chicken feed, as my grandmother would say). Türggeribel. Turkish corn. Maize flour cooked for hours on end with milk and water, in an immense cauldron over the fire. Food for the poor it was. Almost lost in oblivion when the post war boom hit even our back then still very rural plains. Neglected patrimony when people endeavoured to seem well off, scorning the past, eagerly embracing progress and toast Hawaii.

I went to France for the unkempt landscapes of my past. To rediscover the particular mood of cultivated land seemingly untouched by the iron grip of optimisation and efficiency. I sought simplicity and quiet. And stumbled across Ribel in my new home. In a casual chat with the former village teacher. Gaudes, they call the ground maize in their local French patois. Or blé Turc, Turkish corn. It’s said to be had only in the Franche-Comté. Cooked for hours on end with milk and water, in an immense cauldron over the fire. A silky thread linking my origin to my chosen place of home. Defying me to pay it attention, transforming it into a (decent) dish, bearing in mind my grandmother’s somewhat accurate verdict. A dish that flatters the palate instead of making you choke on a seeming handful of sand. I relied on the well established risotto principle, using the bramata version of Ribel, which is of a bigger grain, less sandy. It worked out remarkably well, even earning me a surprised nod by my mother.

And this is how it goes:

Pour a generous puddle of sunflower seed oil into a large, wide pan, add 1-2 cloves of garlic and a laurel leave. Heat up slowly, you would not want to burn either of the ingredients. Pour a good handful of grossly ground maize per person and glaze gently for a couple of minutes and then add a sip off white wine. Enjoy the hiss and the steam. Throw in a piece of (very) old cheese rind if available, it will add flavour and savour. Cook and stir, clockwise, adding an occasional scoop of vegetable stock (homemade, I say you owe this to yourself), keeping the grains covered and nonchalantly simmering. It is the risotto principle, meaning that this isn’t a dish that tolerates negligence (or showing off your fabulous multitasking skills). It calls for your steady attention. Meditation in the steaming copper pan will do just perfectly. Thing with the Ribel bramata is that theoretically you can cook it forever, it won’t go over the point of being al dente. I find this very practical when we are having guests. Generally, it’s done after about 30 mins of cooking.

When the grains are cooked, add a helping of cream and some grated stout aged cheese. I took a Methusalem of a sheep cheese for the purpose. A nut of butter and cover and let it rest for a couple of minutes. You may have to taste whether it needs another bit of salt, depending on the seasoning of your stock.

Now top it with whatever your heart desires. I fancied some cooked chiccorino rosso and blue cheese. A dash of fiery black pepper. There you go.

I’m sure grandmother would have granted her approval. Chicken feed refined.

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