This is No Bologna

Mortadella has a long history and remains a highly regarded meat from Italy.

The bologna from Bologna that’s not bologna, it’s Mortadella

It’s morning, or about to be, in the forest. The oak trees have yet to wake to the glimmer of the morning sun, but the forest floor is alive.

Wild pigs are feasting in the fog-laden land of Etrurian Felsina, or, nearby, in Gallic Bonimia. The forest’s oak trees have dropped their acorns, much to the delight of the hungry beasts.

The acorns have attracted the pigs. The pigs, rooting about, have attracted the nearby villagers. It’s the 1300s. The villagers, like the pigs, are eager for a feast. It has not been an easy time. The Black Death has been a specter in all of Europe for a time. People are sick. People are dying. One third of all Italians have succumbed to the plague.

But, this morning, the morning in the oak laden forest, when the sky dawns, everything is aglow. There’s hope and promise of a fine meal. The villagers snare one of the pigs. They take the hog home to prepare it.

They finely mince the shoulder. They incorporate fat, just the right amount, for flavor. It’s nearly a paste, the meat, then, working it down with mortar and pestle before putting it in a sausage casing. The villagers eat it, ravenously, happily. They eat Mortadella.

Ripe with Tradition

So begins a tradition that continues to this day. Born in Bologna, though not what many think of as bologna, the meat, found on higher end charcuterie boards, after having been banned for a time in the United States, is having a Renaissance, having been first made not long after Da Vinci was painting the Mona Lisa and not long after Dante was penning The Divine Comedy during the Renaissance of the 1300s.

“My best memories of Mortadella go back to my childhood and the time I spent with my grandma,” says Lorenzo Tedeschi, sales director at Rovagnati, maker of pre-sliced charcuterie products in New York. “I loved the sweet taste of Mortadella and couldn’t get enough of it.”

He continues, “I always asked grandma to prepare me a panini for me before soccer practice to have energy but, in reality, I was gluttonous and wanted Mortadella.”

Tedeschi seems a far cry from those hungry villagers in Italy, routed by the plague, looking for rooting pigs to eat.

Mortadella Bologna has a centuries old history and has been made for hundreds of years with exacting standards. Specifically, Mortadella Bologna PGI is a charcuterie product belonging to the category of cooked sausages prepared with a mixture of pork. The production processing area of certified Mortadella Bologna PGI includes the Italian regions of Bologna, Emilia e Romagna, Piedmont, Lombardy, Veneto, Tuscany, Marche, Lazio and the autonomous province of Trentino.

It has to adhere to production methods. It has to look a certain way; taste a certain way; slice a certain way; have a certain aroma. It has to have the right amount of fat. The fat has to be a particular kind of fat. In the case of Mortadella, throat fat.

PGI Requirements

The PGI in Mortadella Bologna PGI stands for Protected Geographical Indication. The PGI protects and promotes names of agricultural products and foodstuffs. Gorgonzola, Parmigiano Reggiano, Herve cheese, cognac, champagne and more, are all products that can be labeled as such if they come from that specific designated region.

Mortadella is not the bologna that Americans typically think of. “We are in a battle against the baloney,” says Augusto Cosimi of the Italian Consortium for the Protection ofMortadella Bologna, “a fake product. Unfortunately, it’s very popular in the States.”

It’s an easy mistake for Americans to make, but, make no mistake, Mortadella Bologna is no ‘baloney.’ Similar in appearance, Mortadella is a deli meat, made entirely of pork, speckled with chunks of pork fat, lightly spiced, sometimes with pistachios; sometimes with myrtle berries.

Mortadella was banned from import into the United States from 1967 to 2000 due to an outbreak of African swine fever in Italy. The 1971 film, Lady Liberty, starring Sophia Loren, has a major plot point in which her character tries to smuggle Mortadella into the United States.

The meat has yet to catch fire in America, but interest is growing. “I absolutely recommend Mortadella to anyone who has yet to try it,” Tedeschi says. “It has a pleasing texture and unmistakable flavor. That means that, unlike most deli meats, Mortadella’s balanced flavor makes it a perfect embellishment for nearly any meal.”

A Star of a Plate

Cremini’s is a cafe in New York City that serves Mortadella and gorgonzola crescia, a folded over flatbread. At Queens, an eating establishment in San Francisco, one can find golbaengi muchim salad that includes Burgundy snails, perilla, cucumbers, hot peppers, scallion ribbons and Mortadella. Milwaukee’s Calderone Club has Mortadella as the star of its Antipasto  of Montagna dish, served with marinated artichoke hearts, olives and pepperoncini.

As chefs today find innovative ways to use “the pink queen,” as Mortadella has been called, its legacy is set in stone, literally. In the Archeological Civil Museum of Bologna is a stone from the Roman Imperial Era. It is believed to be the first record of Mortadella. Carved in the stone is a picture of seven pigs on one side of it and a mortar and pestle on the other. Since the mortar and pestle was used by the ancient Romans to tenderize and knead the pork meat together with salt and spices, the word Mortadella could come from the word “muratum,” meaning “meat minced with mortar.”

But, then again, maybe not. No one is quite sure of the word’s origin. Another theory as to why it’s called Mortadella comes from the Latin word “myrtatum,” mryt. The spice myrt was a key ingredient in sausage making in ancient Italy.

Regardless of how the name came to be, the first Mortadella recipe, as delis from Denver to Dallas slice it up for the customers of today, was written by Vincenzo Tanara at the beginning of the 17th century. A Bolognese nobleman, Tanara was both an agronomist and gastrome. His recipe gave precise instructions for the ingredients to be used, and the recipe gave exacting measurements to adhere to. That recipe is the basis for all things Mortadella since.

Mortadella Production

On Oct. 24, 1661, the production of Mortadella was codified by a cardinal.

Take a cut of pig, mostly the shoulder of the pig. Mince it. Mix it with lardon, mostly throat fat. Add some spices; some herbs. Stuff the mixture in sausage casings and cook them in air stoves. How long you cook them for is dependent on the weight of the Mortadella. At minimum, it’ll be in the stove for eight hours. Sometimes, it’ll be in the stove for as long as 26 hours.  Once the internal temperature of Mortadella is 70 degrees F, take it out of the stove. “This is precisely the most delicate phase,” notes the Italian Consortium for the Protection of Mortadella Bologna’s website, “which gives Mortadella Bologna PGI its aroma and softness.”

The meat is then cold showered and cooled.

Authentic Mortadella Bologna PGI, currently there are 26 companies that are part of the consortium, including Rovagnati, has certain parameters to be adhered to. The meat blend must be a seven to three ratio between pork and fat. The texture must be firm. When sliced, the lardon must be evenly distributed and must not separate.

A lunch meat with chunks of throat fat, one would guess, would not be good for you. Cosimi assures Mortadella eaters. “We want to fight stereotypes about Mortadella Bologna that it is a fat food,” Cosimi says. “From an energy standpoint, a quarter pound of Mortadella Bologna contains fewer calories than a dish of pasta and the same as an equal amount of soft cheese.”

Mortadella is high in protein and has high levels of vitamins B1, B2, B3, B6 and B12, choline, iron, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, sodium and zinc. The cholesterol level of Mortadella is about equivalent to white meat.

As time marched on from villagers hunting pigs, cardinals giving decrees, and gastromes happily eating sliced meats, recipes, outside the realm of Mortadella Bologna PGI, have become varied, even in Italy.

There’s a Mortadella made in Tuscany flavored with garlic and colored with alchermes, an Italian liqueur. There’s a Mortadella made in northern Lazio that is lightly smoked. Mortadella di Cavallo, mainly produced in the Alban Hills, is made not of pig, but horsemeat.

Its popularity has grown outside Italy. It is popular on the Iberian Peninsula. This Mortadella often contains olives and is spiced with pepper. In Jerusalem, a Mortadella made with olives and pistachios is popular. In North America, there are olive loaves and the Bologna that is derided by Mortadella traditionalists.

Tradition has it that ancient Italians killed acorn-laden pigs and created a unique sausage, unparalleled. Now, Lorenzo Tedeschi, with warm thoughts of his beloved grandmother, has family over for a Sunday meal. There’s Mortadella on the table. He says, “Pure joy for all of us!”

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