In John Ayto’s erudite Diner’s Dictionary *, Mortadella sits between Mornay and Mouclade. The latter I adore; the former I can pass by – it is of its time as they say.
Mortadella’s real home is Bologna – some compare it to Lyons as they say it’s the stomach of Italy as the city is truly at the centre of Italian food business. It also boasts one of Europe’s most ancient universities, older even than Oxford and Cambridge some say.
Talk to the locals in places like Bologna, Parma and Modena and many will refer to Mortadella as ‘Prosciutto dei Muratori’ - meaning Builders’ Ham – a nod to the days when mortadella was a cheap meat, made from a finely minced and boiled mix of pork with distinctive white cubes of fat taken from the neck of the pig. Texturally it’s not dissimilar to a Frankfurter or Bratwurst.
For sure, you get what you pay for – and cheap mortadella is high up the unpleasant list of cooked meats and best avoided. Antonio’s, pictured above, is top class – the look on his face says it all.
The cheeky Prosciutti dei Muratori definition was a tongue-in-cheek slight as to its inferiority compared to the aged, far more expensive Prosciutto Crudo’s of nearby Parma where whole pig legs are cured and air dried for months and even years. To be correct a ham can only come from the rear leg of the pig – in England called the gammon.
The endless drive to push producer prices downwards has long since had this noble definition redefined and ham today is from the back, or front of the pig, whole muscle, or even industrially reformed and glued together in a cooking mould. As bad, pig legs are traded across the EU and some end up being cured in Italy to be sold off, as if taken from the locally reared pigs – that’s why quality marks like the Consortiums, DOP and IGP count for much and should be trusted. Otherwise we fall into the ugly clutches of commerce back there again at its avaricious corner cutting worse – the stuff of a 1,000 posts from me some day – or better when we get rolling on TV when we’ll leave no stone unturned.
Big Business Bullying
The Consortium di Parma rightly disapproves of such short cutting, driven by quick fix merchants – even pre-sliced packs were frowned upon until big business bullied its way to beat the artisan curers into a compromise. The customer is the loser every time, for any ham, salami, mortadella, speck, coppa or whatever loses its full aroma and flavour within hours of slicing – gas flushed packs help none either.
The better restaurants will only slice their meats as the order comes from the table. Slicing machines are basic equipment in homes across Italy, Austria and Germany where such meats are a cultural right. Whenever you treat yourself to prosciutto crudo or other salumi, try always to eat it the same day.
The genuine Consortium Crudo, with the crown of Parma burnt into the skin, is aged, whereas mortadella made today can be eaten tomorrow. See it like gin and vodka to Cognac and whisky – all are as good as the maker’s integrity, but the process is different.
Don’t get me wrong, there are fine mortadella’s and they are worth seeking out – cooked when they are in Marsala, flavoured generously with pistachio, or black peppercorns and their like. I love good mortadella.
Blue Collar Gastronomy
The phrase ‘Builders’ Ham’ took my fancy and, talking to Italians I know, I have learned it is very local parlance to the industrial suburbs of Modena and around. Given this is the beautiful city which gave us Pavarotti, Ferrari, Maserati and more, a reference to cheap is somewhat rich. It’s like reverse Blue Collar Gastronomy.
The Sunday lunchtime tavola caldo in Caffe Concerto on the main piazza is a delight – the food used to be free so as to encourage you to upgrade your wine purchase. Huge dishes would be rushed up and down the wide stairway to the first floor kitchens. We haven’t been there for 10 years so things may have changed.
According to Ayto and my other researches, mortadella was originally flavoured with myrtle, hence its name which derives from the Latin for myrtle, murtum. True or false, mortadella has moved upwards and expensive pistachios are its more likely adornment today.
Elegant, Ancient Mortadella
Eaten in huge quantities every day in workmens’ panini’s moistened with sun-blushed tomatoes, mortadella only gets to its pinnacle when served the elegant way.
Rather than sliced like most other salumi, mortadella takes on a new guise when cut in a thicker, +1cm slice. Then, skin removed, cut into random, irregular bite-sized pieces. Modena’s near neighbours are Mantova and Cremona – and here we find the Medieval confection called Mostarda. This is made from whole fruits preserved in a sugar syrup sharply flavoured with mustard oil are typical of the region of Emilia-Romagna.
Many salumeria’s sell them from large jars or barrels by weight. When packed in glass or ornately decorated tins they appear as magnificent jewels and have probably been in the Christmas stockings of countless food lovers outside Italy. They then decorate the kitchen shelf as an adornment which is where they should never be – mostarda’s are for eating, however jewel-like they appear.
Cut a selection into small pieces - thread onto a toothpick and then use them to adorn the mortadella. Think of Abigail’s Party having a bella figura make-over and you’re there.
Builders’ ham they might still call it, but mortadella is no longer a budget food. Best always to seek out the artisan model – and if a brand is available, always opt for my friends Levoni (Mantova).
Mortadella is special. The mostarda is its perfect partner. A small plate with your aperitif makes for a fine sweet savoury appetiser.
You could choose to serve it with ’Chef’s Tea’ – otherwise known as Champagne.
NB: * The Diner’s Dictionary by John Ayto (ISBN 0-19-866193-2) published by Oxford University Press 1993