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Homegrown polenta? Floriani corn plants deliver 'amazing flavor'

Gary Jackemuk stands next to the backyard Floriani cornfield at Winnetka Farms, his homestead in the San Fernando Valley, snatching fig beetles in midair with his hands. The beetles have been landing on the pollen-heavy tassels emerging from the cornstalks, Jackemuk says, but they don’t bother the corn. They’re really here for the ripe figs and apples nearby.

As he catches the bugs he unceremoniously dumps them into a pheromone-laced trap -- the holding cell until he can feed them to his chickens later. The sight of Jackemuk trapping pests with bare hands is almost enough to distract you from the spectacle of the corn, easily 8 feet high, planted in 16 rows. The plot is 16 feet wide and twice as long, and the corn is so high that Craig Ruggless, Jackemuk's partner, sometimes runs a sprinkler overhead -- a watering practice he normally would avoid.

The corn was hybridized by First Nations tribes in New England and then introduced to Italy hundreds of years ago -- during the American slave trade, some botanists have theorized. Cold-hardy, it was a staple for villagers in Alpine valleys, grown nearly exclusively for polenta. The specific type that Jackemuk and Ruggless are growing was discovered in an Italian family's garden by Santa Cruz culinary historian William Rubel, who then brought back seed for production in California.

It grew in Northern Italy for at least two centuries, says Bob Klein of Community Grains, a project to "rebuild a local grain economy" in Northern California. “That's where we think it got very tasty,” Klein says of the origins of Floriani, which he grows to make cornmeal.

Because it’s an heirloom crop, Floriani corn is not the production powerhouse that a hybrid corn would be. The plants yield about half of what a commercial non-GMO yellow corn might

Because of that lower yield, Ruggless has about 500 plants in the ground.

“We want to be able to eat it all winter long, into the spring,” he said.

The Floriani corn won’t be used for just polenta. Fresh-ground cornmeal made from flint corn brings a distinctively complex flavor to hominy (pozole), grits, pancakes, cornbread -- even masa for tortillas.

But polenta is what Floriani corn was bred to make. The kernel is red and the resulting cornmeal is pinkish, says Ruggless, who has a mill.

“Grinding the corn right before you make the polenta? So worth that little effort," he says. "The flavor is amazing.”

Corn likes a lot of nitrogen and does better if planted in close rows, allowing for easy fertilization.

Seeds are available from Fedco, Local Harvest and Southern Exposure.

The Global Garden is our series looking at multicultural L.A. through the lens of its landscapes. It appears here on Tuesdays.

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