How mortadella got its mojo back
Mortadella, the flamingo-coloured lunch meat, has been made in Bologna since the 14th century. On first glance it’s slightly sad-looking – all flabby edges and globs of white fat. In a sandwich, however, it’s a superior salume. Once you try it, you’ll never go back.
Made from finely minced, heat-cured pork shoulder, good mortadella is typically smooth, smokey and gelatinous. The reason for the fat is that it makes for a more mild flavour, although extra flavour is added with pistachios, myrtle berries or peppercorns. Once more prized than prosciutto – the process of reducing whole shoulders into a paste was considered a fine art – today it is generally cheaper. (The introduction of 19th-century machinery made grinding a breeze; prosciutto, on the other hand, requires at least nine months in a curing chamber.)
Until the early 2000s, mortadella was illegal in the US, a response to high cases of swine flu. For some, the ban prompted a bit of a thing: tourists hid slices in suitcases; cars crossed borders with rolls stuffed in their wheels. For others, it was simply replaced with baloney, a monotone alternative made with various ground meats. Think crude slices of hot dog filling.
With that has emerged an opinion that mortadella is somehow inferior – the “ugly orphan child of the charcuterie board”, as the FT once wrote. “Cucina povera really came into my school lunches,” says Jake Cassar, the Maltese founder of Mortadeli in Torquay, Victoria in Australia. “I would get teased in school – I hated it.” Now Cassar embraces mortadella’s thriftiness, sourcing a “wide range” of styles from butchers across Australia (LP’s Quality Meats, Princi and Meatsmith). “Sometimes it doesn’t even make it home,” he says, of the slices he brings back from the deli. “I don’t think mortadella should ever go out of fashion.”
Restaurants are also cottoning on, the latest being LA wine bar Voodoo Vin. “It’s definitely a favourite on our menu,” says chef Travis Hayden, who serves his pistachio-flecked antipasto with pickled cauliflower. New London restaurant Notto has a similar starter with preserved root vegetables, while food emporium Eataly sells 50 kilos a week. There are even mortadella parties, most recently hosted at Manchester’s Flawd and London’s Ombra, and featuring the produce of Italian pig breeder and winemaker Federico Orsi.
In London, Manteca chef Chris Leach has been making mortadella for five years. “It is very popular,” he says, linking Bologna’s rich spice trade to the salume’s smoky flavour; Manteca’s version is made with nutmeg, fennel and star anise. For Leach, part of mortadella’s magic is its ease: the fact that it’s heat-cured means you could make it at home. If a batch goes wrong (overcooking can result in a grainy texture), he grinds it up to make balanzoni, green tortellini filled with ricotta, spinach and parmesan and mortadella. “It’s always on a menu somewhere – whether that’s sliced or in a filling,” says Leach.
For me, mortadella is a flashback to childhood – fat slices in the car home from school and stolen midnight snacks. Norma’s Giovann Attard, who serves his mortadella with a pistachio crumb, similarly recalls sandwiches “stuffed” with it. And Joe Paish, sous chef at New York restaurant Rolo’s, developed a love for “vernacular” lunch meats while growing up with four siblings. Paish slow roasts his mortadella in a “primitive smoker” for 15 hours. “You are, of course, given a knife and fork, but mortadella is best eaten with your fingers,” he says.