When Only Polenta Will Do

April 30, 2015

The ‘wooden plank/roof tile in place of the dinner plate’ fad has been around for a while, so I thought it safe to venture out into the wide world of inner Sydney pub bistros to test if chefs had done away with it. Not yet it seems.

I’ve eaten croissants, BLTs, toasties, salads and other foods plonked on non-plates. I’ve chased an undercooked egg oozing from a hamburger bun around a bit of treated pine. But after being served a steak with pepper sauce on a wooden board, I’m done. Do you realise how stressful it is to bolt down your meat before the pepper sauce finds its way to the edge of the board and drips onto the table? And the timber shards the serrated knife edge leaves behind aren’t much fun.

polenta illustration

There are times when plates are impractical. As an Italian-Australian growing up on home-cooked polenta I can attest to the tradition of pouring cooked polenta from the pot onto a wooden board, where it doesn’t spread too much. My father would cut it into slices with a taut wire (Jamie Oliver uses dental floss but I won’t go there) and serve it on plates with accompaniments from our Friuli-Venezia Giulia region. We’d have either a brodetto di pesce (cuttlefish or baccalà stew), sausage ragu or even braised borlotti beans.

There are Italian regional variations of the dish and sometimes polenta is served flat on a monstrous wooden board and then topped with rich tomato sauce and meat pieces for everyone around the table to dig into. Diners slowly work their way into the centre of the dish, a forkful at a time. It’s rustic eating and sounds like fun in the privacy of your own home.

I’m seriously thinking of asking for my next café steak/hamburger/anything with a runny sauce to be served on a dinner plate. As a paying customer, I think that’s fair.

While I wait for this trend to pass, I’ll enjoy following @WeWantPlates a tweeter who crusades against “serving food on bits of wood and roof tiles, jam-jar drinks and chips in mugs.” Thirty-six thousand followers feel their pain.

Image: from ‘Friuli e Trieste in Bocca’ by Manuela Busetti.



  1. How interesting Ambra. I don’t think we quite have such a trend here in the US, although salmon is often served on a plank. Italian polenta on a board – right on!

    • That’s interesting Jovina. I’d assumed that we had latched onto some hip NY or west coast trend. Maybe not. I wonder where it’s come from.

  2. It has been around in Sydney for quite a few years to serve a meal on a board … perhaps a carry-over from cheese boards?

    The most ridiculous thing I’ve seen for a while was last September at the MCA restaurant when I ordered arincini balls … 6 small balls came served on half an egg carton. To me, that’s on a par with often expensive ripped jeans.
    You are entitled to a plate, just as we ask in a chinese restaurant for a spoon/fork instead of chopsticks.

    Must find some polenta, haven’t eaten it for years … it hasn’t been trendy!

    • You’re right, it’s been around for a while but it’s taken me this long to go public with my rant. Full of confidence, I’ll now ask for a plate too

  3. Yes, I ‘get’ butter served on a cool slice of stone or slate but runny sauces on planks? Add in the battleground of a tiny bistro table and I’m done. But then you conjure up that image of polenta on a board and I’m off dreaming of farmhouse kitchens in Umbria and thinking: must get myself a good board. The perils of fashion vs tradition. (And don’t get me started on drinks served in Mason jars…)

    • Colin, I’ve had my board for ages and it’s only used for polenta. It’s the same shape as the one in the illustration, with a handle. Can’t remember where I bought it, probably in one of those daggy Italian homewares shops in the innerwest.

  4. Ambra, I loved reading this… especially the part about your family’s experience with polenta on a board, the Italian way. I’m with you… you never really know how clean those boards are… and you’re ight about the juices dripping off, not to mention the sound of a knife grating against a tile! Going now to follow that Twitter person! Thanks lovely xo

    • Damn, I forgot to mention the hygiene aspect of the complaint. I’m sure there’s lots of room for germs in the cracks created by knives in those boards. Enjoy the tweeter, I get lots of laughs from them

  5. Ambra, thanks for promoting such a great culinary treat. I confess that I’ve now given up the long minutes of stirring and splatters of polenta across the cook top and bake my polenta. I miss those lovely ‘plop’ sounds but the taste is just as good. Big question though: is it autentico????

    • Baking polenta in the oven is a no no Lyndal. Sorry about that. But I agree with you that it can get messy. In the old days it was cooked/stirred in a heavy copper pot on top of a hearth. Now there’s a winter project for you?

  6. Finally getting it Aunty Ambra!

    • Good to hear Jill. Must have been a temp glitch

  7. I’ve often wondered about the hygiene when wooden boards are used. Are they put in the dishwasher after each customer or given a wipe down!!!! A frightening thought!

    • My money’s on a quick wipe down. I can’t see them putting boards through a dishwasher and then keeping them oiled etc. I’m wondering what the hygiene experts have to say about it. Thanks for dropping by and your comments.

  8. You not only make me smile but you make me think!! I haven’t had that problem in the states but i can’t imagine it being hygienic. I love plates. If you have some additional sauce you can always scrounge up some bits of bread to soak up the sauce — but i believe some of the high brow restaurants would frown on that as well as some of the high brow customers. My papa’s plate was CLEAN!! he didn’t waste a thing. I am having a really hard day but your post made me laugh. And then, you mentioned polenta and i realized I hadn’t eaten since six a.m. — I’m Italian no wonder I’m grumpy!!
    Alla prossima

    • Thanks Marisa Franca. I agree with everything you say. The trend seems more prolific in the UK than the US judging from comments. Anyway, it’s getting cold here in Sydney and that means ‘polenta time’.

  9. I can’t stand slate ‘plates’ – that feeling that any moment you’ll do a ‘blackboard’ screeeeeech on the surface, and the pity for the poor waiter who can’t get any leverage to pick the damn thing up. (And I love that twitter account – so true).

    • Maybe we should carry some white chalk and write on the slates “pls re-submit on a plate”

  10. My father was a POW in Italy during the war and one of the recurrent memories of escaped POWs who were looked after by Italians after the armistice is of polenta being poured onto a board and then being cut as you describe. They’d never seen anything like it before!

    • Sounds like a lovely and welcome meal for your father. Food memories are to be treasured.

  11. HI Ambra

    great article and very funny!

    would love to make the salted cod recipe where’s the best place to get this fish?


    Sylvia DeAngelis Community Programs and Events City Community Tennis Head Office Prince Alfred Park Tennis Courts, Surry Hills PO Box 458, Strawberry Hills, NSW 2012 Australia P + 61 2 9698 9451 M 0404087917 F + 61 2 8003 9695 E sylvia@citycommunitytennis.com.au W http://www.citycommunitytennis.com.au



    • Thanks Sylvi. You can buy the ‘wet’ salted cod (no need to soak the dried corpse for three days) from good Italian delis, eg Norton St Grocer, Trims Fresh in Marketplace or the Italian IGA in Haberfield among others. I’ll hunt out some recipes for you. cheers

  12. I’ve only seen cheese and appetizer type things served on boards here but I can’t imagine trying to eat a steak on one! Very unsanitary especially since I like mine med rare. But mannaggia those jam jars for serving drinks are the worst-even a bit worse than those awful stemless wine glasses. Yuk! When I see either of those I’m tempted to get up and leave!

    • I agree – on all counts. Hopefully these boards, slates, jam jars and other inappropriate crockery will be banished to the strange place from whence they came. Thanks for dropping by!

  13. nothing like a good round board for polenta and some wire to cut it with

    • I think someone should package a round wooden board with a wire as a ‘polenta kit’ to sell in kitchenware shops.

  14. Brava! I too am over the cutting board/tile think! While dining with a group of workmates in Adelaide earlier this year, we asked our waiter questions about the preparation of several items on the menu and one of our group asked her to list all the dishes NOT served on a board so she could make a choice! I’d say Adelaide’s well over it too.

    • I hear you too. I’m almost scared to order anything in a cafe or pub these days for fear it will come plonked on a board. But I’m rehearsing to ask for a proper plate in a couple of establishments near me that have started using the board. Fingers crossed!

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