Grain corn is a terrific crop for gardeners who want to grow their own staple crops, and it’s productive enough to be rewarding even in urban gardens. You can grow corn anywhere in the continental United States, and it’s easy for any household to harvest, store, and process into flour and cornmeal. Grain corn is much easier to process than wheat is, and, in many ways, cornmeal is a more versatile grain staple than wheat flour.
A New World of Corn
Cornmeal is a culinary world in itself: cornbread, muffins, pancakes, waffles, polenta, grits, scrapple, cornmeal crusts for fried chicken or vegetable fritters, and, if you boil whole kernels with culinary lime, you enter the world of hominy, hominy grits, and Mexican tortillas and tamales. Yet it’s ironic that despite more than 88 million acres of corn growing in the United States (the estimate for 2015), there are few choices of grain corn in the grocery store. Cornmeal is such a commodity product that it’s rarely fresh in stores, packages don’t tell you which corn cultivar was ground to make it, and it’s nearly impossible to buy whole kernels for grinding. But there’s hope.
‘Floriani Red Flint’ is a rare, open-pollinated red flint corn from Italy with unforgettable flavor — and the possibilities for cooking with it are endless. If you’re hoping to become self-sufficient in grain, or if you’re looking for a cornmeal with a rich, distinct taste and texture, then you’ll love Floriani. This heirloom corn is an old cultivar from the Italian Alps that was originally selected for qualities that make great polenta. This particular cultivar is a landrace (a locally adapted cultivar that has more variation than a cultivar bred for specific qualities) from the Valsugana valley, where subsistence farmers grew it as staple food until the mid-20th century. The Alpine farmers dried their crop, shucked the ears, and ground the corn into a coarse meal that they boiled and served as polenta.
While the hulls are red, the meal is a deep yellow with a hint of pink. It’s physically beautiful and has a rich, complex flavor to match. ‘Floriani Red Flint’ is the ideal grain corn crop for gardeners: productive, rewarding, and not the usual industrial fare.
Fedco, a Maine-based seed company, had this to say about Floriani in its 2010 catalog: “Stop the presses! Fabulous flavor is why we stuck Floriani into the catalog at the last possible moment. Its medium-to-deep red, pointed kernels are easy to shell. They grind into a fine, pinkish meal that bakes with an appealing spongy texture. Floriani’s richly sweet, delicious, corny taste beat the competition silly in our pancake and cornbread muffin bake-off.”
Growing Floriani and Selecting Seed
‘Floriani Red Flint’ is new to the United States. I first encountered it in Italy while visiting a friend. I admired the corn’s flavor and was given a kilo of it to bring home. Growers have now tested the corn in Kansas, Maine, Nebraska, South Carolina, and Northern California.
Floriani seems well-adapted to many North American growing conditions. Like all corn, it’s a heavy feeder. With enough feeding, expect to harvest ears that are at least 8.5 inches long with 15 or 16 rows of kernels. Be sure to plant in rich soil and, if you can, side-dress with nitrogen-rich compost or apply an organic fertilizer.
Gardeners can easily grow enough Floriani for many servings of grits, polenta, pancakes (check out this recipe for Amazing Corn Pancakes), and cornbread (try our World’s Best Cornbread recipe). For enough corn to last one year, and to grow enough to have a genetically stable crop to save seed from, plant at least 2,000 seeds (about 19 ounces). You can expect one ear per plant, roughly 100 ears per 100-foot row, and, if you’ve done well with your husbandry, this 100 feet will yield at least 10 pounds of grain. On a larger scale, a California farmer growing about 25,000 plants to the acre is getting yields in the range of 1 to 1½ tons per acre, using organic methods.
We tend to speak of “seed saving.” Yes, historically, farmers “saved seed,” but it would be more accurate to say they selected seed for the next harvest. They selected for traits they wanted to encourage and, in so doing, created variants of known cultivars (landraces), and sometimes variants that were different enough to be classified as entirely new cultivars. ‘Floriani Red Flint’ is an example of this. Its name in the Alpine Italian dialect is spina rossa della Valsugana (red-spined of Valsugana).
The pioneering group of North American growers named it ‘Floriani Red Flint’ to recognize the generosity of the Floriani family in sharing their seed. This corn is the result of many farmers over a long period of time selecting for at least four traits: early ripening, large cobs, red color, and a markedly pointy or spiny kernel. Fortunately, attached to one or more of these traits is exceptional flavor. For the goal of repopulating our grain trade with grains that have terrific flavor and not just good growing qualities, ‘Floriani Red Flint’ is perfect. Alpine farmers already selected it for a short growing season, making it one of the earliest flint corns — an ideal trait for a country the size of ours with such varied growing conditions. Fedco rates Floriani at about 100 days to maturity based on organic trials in Maine.
Keeping this grain corn cultivar true will take some extra work. In a large field, while most ears will be deep red, you can expect to see ears ranging in color from red to yellow. This is typical of this type of open-pollinated corn. If you harvest acreage mechanically, be sure to harvest for seed separately, by hand. To keep ‘Floriani Red Flint’ true to its landrace, select for replanting the reddest corn with the most pointy kernels from the healthiest ears.
We can’t all grow our own corn. Fortunately, farmers and millers are so excited about this cultivar that more sources are becoming available for people who want to buy Floriani corn flour. One such source is the company Community Grains in Northern California. ‘Floriani Red Flint’ is one reason Community Grains was created, and the company specializes in milling it.
In Italy, Floriani’s reason for existence was polenta. In their more rustic forms, Italian polenta and American grits are basically the same thing: boiled whole-grain cornmeal. Whether you serve it as polenta or grits, this is a dense corn that benefits from long cooking. I suggest simmering it for three hours, or cooking it in a pressure cooker for 20 minutes. I prefer a ratio of 1 part cornmeal to 3½ to 4 parts water, but there’s no right amount of water to use — go by your personal taste. Adding water is easier than evaporating it, so start on the conservative side.
Whether cooking in an open pot or in a pressure cooker, pour the coarsely ground ‘Floriani Red Flint’ into lightly salted, boiling water. Whisk to eliminate lumps, then, if using a pressure cooker, cover, pressurize and cook for 20 minutes. Otherwise, simmer for about three hours, adding water if the polenta gets too stiff. Polenta doesn’t require constant stirring. It does stick, however, so check on it from time to time to ensure it doesn’t burn. Polenta is done when it’s creamy and tender.
You can enrich your polenta with butter or cheese. Stirring in grated, hard sheep’s milk cheese would be authentic to the corn’s Alpine origins, as would making it with goat’s or sheep’s milk. My preference, though, is to keep the polenta as light as possible because its intrinsic flavor is so good.
One great quality of this corn is that it often blends well with deep flavors. It’s especially good served with strongly flavored greens, such as collards, kales, and chicories, or with wild greens, such as dandelion and nettles. Polenta topped with a wild mushroom sauce is a classic, as are any toppings made of grilled sausage or game birds. Floriani also goes well with farmhouse stews, especially those made with meat from older farm animals that requires long cooking to tenderize.
Ample Scrapple Options
Scrapple is a rare American dish regional to Pennsylvania. As a Californian, I’d heard of it, but only recently tasted it for the first time. My first encounter with scrapple shocked me — in a good way. Why hadn’t I made this before? It’s terrific!
At the center of scrapple’s American history is a dish associated with pig butchering among the Pennsylvania Dutch. Historically, scrapple was essentially polenta boiled in a broth made from bits of pig that couldn’t be used in sausage making. Cooks chopped up that same meat and stirred it back into the polenta, then poured the polenta out to cool and solidify, at which point it was sliced and fried.
Using ‘Floriani Red Flint’ brings to scrapple the type of cornmeal the Pennsylvania Dutch traditionally cooked with. I make the broth with pork shoulder, but you can substitute the meat you like. I also add a little thyme and rosemary to the polenta during cooking. Dip the slices in flour before frying them to golden brown.
Cheryl Long, former editor-in-chief of our sister publication Mother Earth News and a scrapple devotee, has a slightly different take on scrapple. She combines Floriani polenta with raw, ground, grass-fed pork. As Cheryl puts it, “Everyone who has tasted our Floriani sausage scrapple is astonished by how good it tastes. We use a premium pork sausage made from pastured heritage hogs, and have our local butcher mix 2 to 3 parts cooked polenta into each pound of sausage. We form patties and freeze them on cookie sheets. This way, the patties are ready to cook — no defrosting needed. Just be sure to dredge the frozen patties in wheat flour to reduce sticking. This is a great way to reduce the per-serving cost of premium, grass-fed meat.”
A Food Revolution
Beyond its suitability for the garden or the kitchen, Floriani is not a commodity crop. The shelves of 21st-century grocery stores are packed with inexpensive foods but often have limited variety. Corn, of course, is a classic commodity crop. But things change. From the kilo of seed the Florianis gave me, actual acreage is now being grown in the United States. Seed is already available through two seed companies, and flour is available through a miller. All are small beginnings helping to re-establish some variety we’ve lost — but beginnings nonetheless. Floriani provides gardeners with the best possible staple grain corn, and, on an even larger scale, helps reverse some of the terrible trends in agriculture of the previous century.
In many ways, introducing ‘Floriani Red Flint’ is a test. Can we compete with commodity grain agriculture? Can we bring diversity back to the grain trade? Right now, in most of the country, the grain-processing system can’t handle non-commodity products. The system isn’t set up for cleaning, storing, and keeping separate small batches of grain that may be from different cultivars or grown by different farmers. Companies would need to purchase new machinery and construct new buildings to store grain in a new way.
Amazingly, in Northern California, interest in ‘Floriani Red Flint’ has been significant enough to begin the process of making this kind of fundamental change to the grain-processing infrastructure. By demanding a great product such as ‘Floriani Red Flint,’ you can cause the agricultural system to change in exciting ways. You can help create the demand for excellence that creates the infrastructure for the processing of heirloom grains — a precondition for farmers to grow them on a larger scale.William Rubel, a cook and author specializing in traditional cooking, met the Florianis and was introduced to their wonderful homegrown corn while in Italy researching wild mushrooms.