Mastering Mortadella

Discover what makes this Italian bologna a unique standout.

Mortadella.

The name rolls off the tongue – just like a wafer thin slice of the silky smooth pork luncheon meat melts in the mouth.

Similar in appearance to bologna, mortadella is a deli meat, made entirely of pork meat, speckled with chunks of pork fat and pistachios, lightly spiced, with a strong aroma, in a signature cylindrical or oval shape.

Today, mortadella is made in the United States, Canada and other countries, but true mortadella hails from Italy. According to the Product Regulation, the Mortadella PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) must be produced in a defined area of central-northern Italy, from the Veneto to Lazio, and encompassing the provinces of Emilia-Romagna, Piemonte, Lombardia, Trentino, Toscana and Marche, and their cities including Venice, Bologna and Milan.

Mortadella’s roots run back to the Roman Empire. A favorite food of the Romans was a sausage called farcimen mirtatum that was flavored with myrtle berries and ground using a mortar and pestle. The name “mortadella” stems from the Latin words for myrtle (mirtatum) and mortar (mortario).

Modern mortadella dates back to the 16th century and originated in Bologna, Italy. The recipe has not really changed all that much over the years, but each producer within that region may have their own signature profile. Today, there are 33 Italian companies that produce Mortadella Bologna.

Cardinal Decree

The name Mortadella Bologna has been in use since 1661, when Cardinal Farnese published a code of rules governing its production. In many respects, the Farnese code was a forerunner of, and anticipated today’s, PGI and PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) European Union regulations.

A PDO mark on a product identifies a product originating in a specific place, region or country whose quality or characteristics are essentially or exclusively due to a particular geographical environment with its inherent natural and human factors, the production, processing and preparation steps of which all take place in the defined geographical area and are in line with the strict production regulations that have been established.

A PGI mark designates a product originating in a specific place, region or country whose given quality, reputation or other characteristic is essentially attributable to its geographic origin and at least one of the production steps of which takes place in the defined geographic area. The connection to a specific territory implies a link to the people who live and work there, skilled processors who have handed down the recipe and passion for producing and serving mortadella from generation to generation. That is why true Mortadella Bologna can only come from the traditional named areas of north-central Italy where it has been made for centuries.

To be authentic, Mortadella Bologna must meet several crucial guidelines: The meat blend must be a seven to three ratio of pork to fat; the texture must be firm, with each slice having an evenly distributed amount of fat squares called lardons; and the lardons must be firmly embedded in the mortadella and not separate during slicing.

While the lardons may scare off some health conscious consumers who are avoiding saturated fats and cholesterol, Mortadella Bologna is actually quite healthy. Most of the fat in mortadella is comprised of heart healthy unsaturated fats, such as those found in olive oil and salmon, while cholesterol levels of mortadella are similar to a serving of chicken. Mortadella is obviously high in protein, and because Mortadella Bologna has a PGI designation, authentic Italian mortadella is free from fillers, artificial colors, artificial flavors and preservatives.

From the late Renaissance period onward, more and more references to Mortadella Bologna appeared in literature and historical documents, cementing its role as one of the true Italian foods. Mortadella Bologna is the most famous of Bologna’s gastric traditions, but as the food trade expanded, its production area spread from Bologna to outlying districts.

Mortadella’s Production Process

The Mortadella Bologna production process is unique among meats.

For starters, carefully selected pork, processed according to European Union regulations, is passed repeatedly through special meat grinders until it becomes a very fine paste. Next, small cubes of fat (the lardons) are added. The fat comes exclusively from the hog’s throat, the portion of the animal that contains the hardest and choicest fatty tissue.

Purists insist on using Italian pigs, since they provide the best flavor. These animals generally grow larger than their counterparts and have better marbling and muscle competition.

In addition to the ground pork and pork fat, Mortadella Bologna contains salt, white pepper, black peppercorns, coriander, anise, wine and often pistachios. However, pistachios are admitted but not requested by the specification of the PGI mortadella—the most traditional one—or any other mortadella. Pistachios used in Mortadella Bologna are sourced from southern Italy, with a famous growing area found around Bronte, a small village near Catania, Sicily.

The paste is then packed in either pork or beef casings of the desired shape and size—mortadella comes in all shapes and sizes, some up to several hundred pounds—and it is baked in special dry-air ovens.

“Mortadella can actually be found in many different shapes, but the larger traditional circumference is considered to be the best,” says Al Adelson, vice president of sales at Veroni USA, based in Logan Township, NJ. “The larger diameter products allow for slower cooking times, up to 20 hours, which create a clean aroma and appealing texture and flavor.”

The baking phase is the most delicate, and is what gives mortadella all of its typical aroma and soft texture. Depending on the size and shape, the baking times vary greatly, and may run from a few hours to a whole day. During the baking process, the mortadella’s internal temperature must not fall below 158 degrees F (70 degrees C).

After baking, the Mortadella Bologna is sprinkled with cold water, then sent to stabilize in a cool chamber to give it its signature firmness.

A Proprietary Blend

Since 1925, Veroni has been handcrafting its signature Mortadella in Italy’s Emilia region. Using that original 1925 recipe, Veroni’s Mortadella combines finely ground pork with special cuts of pork fat and a unique spice blend that includes pepper, garlic, nutmeg and cinnamon. Veroni uses the fat from the jowl and neck areas of the pig because it has a rich flavor and buttery texture, while holding its definition during cooking, allowing for the distinctive appearance of white chunks of lardons in the pink meat when sliced.

“Our Veroni recipe is stuffed and slowly cooked in special Red Brick Ovens that are specifically constructed for consistent slow cooking,” Adelson explains. “The final product has a clean texture and flavor without the greasy residue often found with faster cooked and lower quality alternatives. Veroni mortadella only uses Italian pigs raised without hormones and is lactose and gluten free.”

Mincing Machines

Principe di San Daniele SpA has been manufacturing mortadella and other Italian delicatessen meats for more than 60 years, and uses modern, automated manufacturing processes. Operating in the U.S. as Principe Foods USA, headquartered in Long Beach, CA, Principe offers its mortadella in 13 kg (28 pounds) and 7 kg (15.7 pounds) sizes in regular and 13 kg pistachio versions.

In its manufacturing process, Principe takes select meat cuts and puts them into 20-25 kg (44-55 pounds) rolls that are then frozen to 14 degrees F (-10 degrees C). The frozen rolls are then minced by placing them into special machines where a number of knives chop up the meat into small pieces. The pieces are then moved to a pre-mixer and to two meat mincers. When it leaves the second mincer, the meat has become a fluid homogenous paste.

The lardons used in Principe’s mortadella are based on pig’s fat coming from the throat or the back, which, after the skinning phase, is reduced to small cubes by special dedicated machines. Before being incorporated into the lean meat, the lard cubes are repeatedly washed in hot water to remove part of the fat, which melts at low temperatures. If this was not done, the fat would melt during the cooking process.

Next, the paste leaving the two meat mincers is introduced into a paste mixer together with the still hot lardon cubes and is mixed together with spices and other ingredients for about 15 minutes. Subsequently, the mixture is moved to the encasing machines working in a vacuum. The mortadellas are then hung on special hooks and transferred to steam ovens, where they are cooked in various steps, including drying, pre-cooking, first cooking and second cooking, at temperatures up to 176 degrees F (80 degrees C) for a duration of 19 to 20 hours. At the end of the cooking, the mortadella is immediately cooled and ready to be packed.

No Nut Option

The rise in nut allergies in the U.S. is having an impact on sales of traditional mortadella with pistachios.

“Traditional mortadella is sprinkled with pistachio nuts, but is increasingly popular without them due to nut allergies, which impact how it can be sliced in supermarkets,” Adelson says. That is why Veroni and other manufacturers are now offering mortadella with pistachios in pre-sliced packaged formats that can be sold in the self-service deli case or in the pegged lunchmeat section.

Unlike mass-market American bolognas and other luncheon meats, Mortadella Bologna is made the “old-fashioned way” without nitrates and other preservatives so it has a relatively short shelf life. Therefore, it is recommended to buy just enough that will be consumed in a couple of days. Mortadella needs to be refrigerated, ideally at a temperature between 35 and 39 degrees F (2 and 4 degrees C). Once opened, it should be tightly covered with plastic wrap and consumed within seven days.

Serving Suggestions

Traditionally, Mortadella Bologna is best enjoyed at room temperature. Try it sliced thin for use in sandwiches and in charcuterie platters. It is also often cut into julienne strips for use in chef salads or cut into small cubes and served with cheese, walnuts, olives and a hearty crusty bread as an appetizer accompanied by a light, fruity red wine. Mortadella also makes a tasty addition to a frittata Italian omelet or as a filling in tortellini and ravioli.

“In Italy, mortadella is a staple and commonly consumed during breakfast, lunch and the aperitivo hour, similar to the pre-dinner ‘Happy Hour’ in the U.S.,” says Adelson. “But in the U.S., mortadella is mostly known as a component on the Italian sandwich, panini or muffuletta. However, mortadella is very versatile and can be enjoyed with eggs, as a delicious pizza or salad topping, and even puréed into a flavorful mousse. It’s top quality like Veroni, it’s delicious on its own and can be the centerpiece of any charcuterie platter,” he says.Mortadella Bologna pairs excellently with a number of wines. A Tuscan Chianti offers a perfect complement to the richness of the mortadella. Sangiovese is another ideal pairing, while Francophiles may opt to go with a Côtes du Rhône. DB