Mortadella is synonymous with Bologna. So much so that abroad, and especially in the U.S., this pink cold cut with its unmistakable aroma is called by the name of the town where it was born – centuries ago. Mortadella has indeed a long history. It appears that it was already known and thoroughly appreciated by the Romans: proof of this is an ancient stele on display inside Bologna’s Museo Civico Archeologico depicting a butcher using a mortar, the tool employed to crush together the meat and spices to prepare mortadella. Further proof is Roman author Pliny, who once described how Emperor Augustus, passing by Bologna, was particularly impressed by this salume. What we know for sure is that during the Middle Ages, mortadella was well known and appreciated all around Europe; and the people who worked pork meat using salt to preserve it had united in the powerful Guild of Salaroli. They also had the important role of monitoring the quality and the mortadella-making process to make sure it adhered to certain standards. The headquarters of the corporation were located in Vicolo Ranocchi, a tiny street in the old market area of Bologna known as Quadrilatero. While today mortadella is considered one of the “poor” cold cuts, especially when compared to prosciutto or culatello, it used to be a food for the rich and powerful; legend has it that it was presented as a wedding gift to noblewoman Lucrezia Borgia when she married Alfonso I, Duke of Este. Mortadella was expensive too, due to the wide use of spices which helped to preserve it longer; it was nine times more expensive than bread, three times more expensive than ham and twice more expensive than olive oil.
In 1661, Cardinal Farnese, representative for the Pope in Bologna, passed a law against the counterfeiting of mortadella, whose production had to be controlled and certified by the massaro, anticipating the modern-day IGP (P.G.I. denomination - Protected Geographical Indication) to guarantee the official recipe. It is only in the 1800s with the new mechanized production techniques that mortadella became cheaper and available to all. It is also in the 1800s, precisely in 1876, that the association of Salsamentari was established in Bologna, replacing the old guild of the Salaroli that had been eliminated by Napoleon. Thanks to its members, mortadella thus became a protagonist of the Industrial Revolution: Alessandro Forni, a local salumiere, invented the watertight can that made it possible to preserve mortadella longer and therefore send it in big quantities all over the world. Forni was also the mind behind the invention of the slicer thanks to which mortadella could be cut thin, packed up in colorful cans and sent over to the rest of the world. The Salsamentari association is still active today and operates to safeguard the product, to help and train its members, and to promote mortadella. “I love the history of this association, and I will do all I can to never let it die because it is such an important part of the history of Bologna,” Davide Simoni, the young owner of the prestigious Salumeria Simoni in Bologna, says. “I love my work because there is so much culture in it,” he continues. “Food is really the only thing you buy that gets inside of you, along with the knowledge of all the people involved in the process: not just the salumiere, but also the person who breeds the animals, the person who makes the string that goes around the whole mortadella, the person who cuts it to give it its shape, in other words the real artisans.”
Mortadella is less fat than you may think, while it is rich in vitamins, mineral salts and proteins. So don’t feel guilty eating it, just make sure it’s the real thing: Mortadella Bologna IGP. The recipe for mortadella has remained the same for centuries, with the exception of the heavy use of spices in the Middle Ages which are no longer used; only pepper is used today.
How to savor mortadella:
- Cut in small chunks as an appetizer, or in pasta dishes, in mixed salads and in quiches;
- As a snack, cut in thin slices, inside fragrant warm bread, like rosetta, with crescenta or with crackers;
- Essential ingredient for the stuffing of tortellini;
- Ingredient of meat loaf (polpettone);
- Mortadella mousse.
Mortadella tastes better when eaten in Bologna. Want to splurge?
Head to Bologna for two festivals dedicated to mortadella:
The annual Mortadella Please – International Festival of Mortadella - takes place late September in Zola Predosa, just outside Bologna, for three days of celebration with tastings, original recipes paired with local Pignoletto wine, gastronomic stands, music and entertainment. For more information, please visit: http://www.mortadellaplease.it
The second edition of Mortadella Bò takes place in the historic center of Bologna, October 9-12, 2014. For more information, please see: http://www.mortadellabo.it/home.php.