Mortadella, ‘the most noble of all pork parts’ according to a proclamation of 1661, was so prized in the 14th and 15th centuries that it was used for currency, as noted in the contracts of the Cathedral Chapter of Bologna.
An esteemed part of Emilian cuisine, the big sausage of Bologna consists of prime cuts of pork ground fine (the whitish squares are cubes of fat mixed in) and spiced, traditionally, with pepper and myrtle berries. The recipe goes back to the Romans, but the word comes from the mortar mortaia used by friars to grind the pork into a smooth paste, before kneading it with whole peppercorns and stuffing it tightly into its casing: the exact rules for its making were established with the Corporazione dei Salaroli (the sausage-makers guild) founded in 1367.
The Americans, who loved it, are responsible for much of the confusion over the name, after 1899 calling any kind of sausage ‘mortadella’ or just plain Bologna sausage, or baloney. A lot of sausage made elsewhere that’s labelled mortadella might as well be baloney. A good mortadella must be eaten sliced as thinly as possible; in the days before slicing machines, there were contests to see who could slice it thinnest and fastest.
It's also employed in many forms as antipasti, in pasta sauces and many new and creative dishes: wrapped around cheese to make involtini di mortadella, inside tortellini, in risottos or potato dishes.
Around Italy you'll see things traditionally called mortadelle that are really salami, like the mortadella di Campotosto from the Abruzzo. Mortadella di Prato in Tuscany is a salame made of cheap cuts spiced with cloves, cinnamon and alchermes. Both are in the Ark of Taste, as are Mortadella classica (the artisanal product of Bologna) and Mortadella della Val d'Ossola, made in Piedmont near Lake Maggiore with a bit of pork liver and spicy wine, aged two months, and traditionally eaten sliced on rye bread.
Images by: giuseppe