Mortadella: Champion Of Bologna

Mortadella in a sandwich.
Image by gate74 from Pixabay

Mortadella is one the classics of Italian charcuterie and an icon of pork meat. It is the pride of that great Italian city Bologna which offers more than just having the oldest university in Europe. Naturally, there are many different varieties of this famous sausage. The best are made with pure pork meat. The cheaper types are often made with mixtures of pork as well as tripe, veal, donkey meat, pig’s head which would normally be used in brawn, even vegetables such as potato and soya flour. It compares with that other famous sausage called baloney and indeed there is some crossover into that category. The danger of the cheaper types of mortadella is that they ruin the image of this sausage. It does pay to hunt around for it.

Size! It is one of the largest sausages known because the originals were and still are encased in stomach. Nowadays more modern producers using sausage casing but it still needs to be served as a roundel.

The meat is spotted with pistachio and small pieces of fat known as lardelli. The small green-lipped pieces of pistachio provide one of the characteristic alerts that you are about to purchase or bite into this sausage.

It must be ancient because Pliny the Elder discusses this sausage in the first century A.D. The word comes from the Latin for mortar which is mortarium. These were bowls used for grinding up meat.

Bologna incidentally is a city in the state of Emilia Romagna which is one of the richest food-loving centres of Europe. Unfortunately when you see mortadella in the supermarket or grocer it often looks a bit fabricated and fatty and lacks the fine quality of a classic meat product. 

Generally mortadella is served as a filling for a sandwich or a fine appetizer.  It is always sliced very finely.

Originally, this salami (salame) was referenced in documents from the Renaissance. The foodwriter Clifford Wright found this sausage mentioned in statutes of the cathedral of Nice in 1233. It was ‘as food for holidays such as Easter, Pentecost, and Christmas.’

He also references a book known as ‘Liber de Coquina‘ to which there is no known author mentions it. Whoever described it was  a familiar with Neapolitan cooking at the time of Charles II of Anjou. It’s also described in a book called Libro per Cuoco which used pig’s liver. This would have made it rather more like a pate sausage. 

Elizabeth David in her book on Italian Food seems a little sniffy about it suggesting that a good salami is a better bet than the rather ordinary slightly slimy types that sell so cheaply in grocers.  

What Is Mortadella Made Of?

Mortadella is an emulsified sausage. That means it is made of cured pork with more than 15% pork fat cubes, plenty of pistachios which are usually chopped but can be found whole, plenty of spice such as black pepper but it seems always containing myrtle berries. Some Mortadella is produced with nutmeg and juniper berries can be replaced with small balls of peppercorns but it isn’t that often.

The dotted appearance is due to plenty of pork fat which is added to give the sausage texture extra flavour. As far as I’m aware there are no vegan versions of this sausage yet.

The sausage is not cured in any salt but is cooked using steam.

How Do We Use Mortadella?

Given it is ideal as a sliced sausage, you are most likely to find it at the deli counter although some retailers and grocers sell it as slicers in prepackaged formats. It makes a very high class sandwich meat replacing pastrami and other slices sausages when a more subtle peppery flavour is required. 

A typical sandwich filling would be slices literally squashed between two halves of a baguette or a ciabatta, plenty of rocket (arugula) to give it all added bite, some olive oil which is slightly rough and a nice dollop of mustard. The whole piece packs a punch

We’ve seen it added to pasta dishes in slices too. It seems to work well with cabbage and sage or other pungent herbs interspersed amongst pasta shapes or even intertwined through pappardelle. Whatever the case it is something to be revered. 

I doubt whether you should expect to see this sausage in chunks but it is perfectly feasible. Some producers like to chop it up because it makes such a nice filling for other dishes.

Clifford Wright again discusses frying mortadella. Thee are when slices of the sausage are soaked in milk, coated in flour and then fried. The soaking in milk removes salt.

What Has Sophia Loren Got To Do With It?

Well this may seem strange but in film folklore, the wonderful sultry Italian actress starred in a film called La Mortadella made in 1971. Over here in the UK and USA, it was known as Lady Liberty. In one of her funny scenes, she arrives in the USA at the customers point. She has a mortadella that was made in the Bologna factory that she worked in. Customs naturally want to take it off her. It is quarantined (I guess as it should be – health & safety and all that). An agent of the government turns up to examine this strange sausage. he takes a penknife to it, samples it and ends up eating all of it. 

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