You may have seen it at the supermarket, packed in individual slices next to the other pre-packaged baloney products. Sadly this is what most Americans think of when they hear the word mortadella. However real Italian mortadella, the pride of the city of Bologna is more than just fatty baloney. Either served in a sandwich, as an appetizer or part of the main course Mortadella di Bologna is yet another delicacy coming from the bountiful region of Emilia-Romagna.
Mortadella hails from the food rich town of Bologna, aptly nicknamed "la grassa," meaning fat. Among the many pork sausage products made in this region, it is this one that is the most celebrated.
Mortadella has been made for at least five hundred years, but may have origins in Roman times. A favorite sausage of the Romans was called farcimen mirtatum and was flavored with myrtle berries and prepared by using a mortar and pestle. The name for mortadella originates from the Latin words for myrtle (mirtatum) and mortar (mortario) and the sausage was made the same way up until the Middle Ages. Today the preparation and ingredients are a little different as Italian culinary life has evolved over the centuries.
Mortadella di Bologna starts with finely ground pork, usually the lesser cuts of meat that are not used for other types of sausage. In fact Mortadella is a testament to the resourcefulness of the Italian pig farmers as nothing edible on the pig is wasted. This ground meat is mixed with a high quality fat (usually from the throat) and a blend of salt, white pepper, peppercorns, coriander, anise, pieces of pistachio and wine. The mixture is then stuffed into a beef or pork casing depending upon the size of the sausage and cooked according to weight. After cooking mortadella is left to cool in order to stabilize the sausage and give it firmness.
The end product must meet certain guidelines to be considered a Mortadella di Bologna such as the meat blend must be a seven to three ratio of pork to fat. The sausage texture must be firm, each slice must have an evenly distributed amount of fat squares called lardons. These distinctive squares must be firmly embedded into the sausage and should not separate during slicing. What you find in a true Mortadella is a slightly firm, pink sausage accented by the white squares of fat. It should be slightly spicy but smoothed out by the lardons and should have a distinctive aroma.
A close cousin to Mortadella di Bologna is the Mortadella di Amatrice. This smoked and aged mortadella is native to the town of Amatrice located in the Apennines. This version is flavored with a different spice blend that includes cloves and cinnamon. Germany and America have their versions, which are known as bologna (or baloney) but do not have the distinctive fat squares and vary in taste and quality.
Slicing, Serving and Storing Mortadella
Like most Italian sausage products (the exception being Salami) the thinner the slice the better. Thin slices of Mortadella have a better mouthfeel and allow the palate to absorb the subtle flavors of the meat and spices. Thin slices also enhance the unique aroma of the sausage, however Mortadella can also be served in small diced cubes similar to ham.
Mortadella is a very versatile sausage that lends itself to all sorts of meals, from appetizers to main courses. Served with walnuts, cheeses and tart berries, or used as base for a delicious creamy spread mortadella makes a delicious ingredient to antipasti. Mortadella can also lend its flavor to eggs as an ingredient to an Italian omelet known as a frittata. When it comes to pasta, mortadella shows up as a stuffing in another Bolognese masterpiece, tortellini. However true lovers of this famous sausage often just slice or cube it and serve it with good hearty bread and a light fruity red wine.
When buying Mortadella you should only buy enough to use in a short amount of time. Like all large sausages of this type, flavor and freshness quickly deteriorate once it has been cut, therefore buying what you need from a butcher or deli is the best way to guarantee that distinctive taste.
For health conscious individuals that are trying to avoid saturated fats and cholesterol there is good news. Mortadella, with its characteristic white pieces of fat is not as bad as you may think. The presence of this fat has scared some into avoiding mortadella, but the sausage is actually very good for you. Unsaturated fats, such as those found in olive oil comprises most of the fat content in Mortadella and cholesterol levels are equal to a similar serving of chicken. The sausage is also high in protein, not to mention that Mortadella di Bologna is protected by its PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) designation, ensuring that authentic mortadella is free from fillers, artificial colors, flavors and preservatives.
Mortadella may be just a lunchmeat to some, but it is very versatile, delicious and nutritious. In comparison to the over-processed and pre-packaged slices of baloney seen in supermarkets, it is health food. Mortadella di Bologna is just another example of an Italian delicacy that not only tastes good, but also is good for you.
By Justin Demetri
For further information:
Istituto per la Valorizzazione dei Salumi Italiani: salumi-italiani.it
Consorzio Mortadella di Bologna: mortadellabologna.com