Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Would The Real Mortadella Please Stand Up!

Fig.1. Mortadella sliced fresh by Fabrizio: silky, melt in your mouth and studded with pistachios. The mortadella forms are also much bigger in Italy than they are here.

I can't think of a better way to start the year than with pork! Mortadella is by far the most misunderstood salumi. Unfortunately, the mortadella available to us here in Montreal is an inferior mixture at best: rubbery, over-salted, and more akin to spam than a proper salumi. In Italy, (especially the D.O.P designated mortadella Bologna) most mortadella varieties are made with pork meat, real pork fat (as opposed to processed fat), salt, and pistachios. Anybody who has sampled thinly, sliced, fresh mortadella in Italy will know what I'm taking about: é tutta un'altra cosa (it's something completely different)
The history of mortadella is as layered as its ingredients. Bartolomeo Scappi, probably the most important cook alive during the Renaissance, published a six book tome dedicated to the culinary arts, complete with step-by-step instructions and illustrations. Scappi's recipe for mortadella consisted of pork and pork fat, chopped with two knives into a fine paste, three different spices (he doesn't say which although we can assume salt and pepper to be two of them) dried fennel, mint, marjoram, and wild thyme. Scappi, as well as other cooks in the 1500s and 1600s, gave mortadella "typicality". A term coined by historian John Dickie in his book, Delizia! The Epic History of the Italians and Their Food. "Mortadella", Dickie asserts, "(had) acquired several of typicality's key components: a precise recipe, protective legislation, an exaggerated ancestry, and a heavy investment of civic patriotism."(Dickie141) As Parmesan cheese had become synonymous with the city of Parma, so too would mortadella be with the city of Bologna.

Fig.2. A fresh mortadella panini I had in the beautiful town of Lucca, Nothing else is needed in this sandwich except fresh bread and fresh mortadella.

In Bologna. mortadella is used in many different ways: in omelettes, in tomato sauce (especially in Ragu Bolognese where it's added in cubed form) stuffed in ravioli and tortellini, or, my favourite way, cut thick, pan fried until golden, and drizzled with honey.
Here's a recipe that recreates what mortadella looks like before it's place in a casing and solidified. Serve this pasty mash as an appetizer with some toasted crostini rubbed with garlic.

Fig.3. Spuma di mortadella crostini, I usually let my guests make their own.

Spuma di Mortadella
Puréed Mortadella


1/2 kilo of mortadella, not sliced but cut thick and cubed
1/3 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil (you want to use the really good stuff here)
1/2 cup shelled pistachios


In a food processor armed with a metal blade, pulse the mortadella, the cheese, the nutmeg and the pistachios until puréed. With the machine running, add the olive oil in a steady stream (if you find the mixture to be too thick, add some more olive oil, if you prefer it thicker add less or mix in some bread.) Season to taste, cover, and refrigerate. Can be prepared a day or two in advance-in fact, it tastes better the next day, just make sure you bring it to room temperature before serving. I also like to sprinkle a few pistachios over the puree. Serve with toasted bread rubbed with garlic or with crackers.

Fig.4. The majority of Canadian mortadella seems to lack pistachios, so add your own.


Anna C said...

So glad to fall upon your blog, and look forward to following your posts.

Anna's Table

Brian said...

Loved the article but just as an fyi, "salumi" is plural; the singular is "salume".