Mortadella di Bologna is so closely associated with the city of Bologna that Americans often use the terms “mortadella” and “bologna” interchangeably.
There is something to be said for being in the right place at the right time. This was the case several years ago.
During one of our visits to Bologna, the capital city of the Emilia Romagna region of Italy, we glanced out our window.
The Mortadella Festival in Bologna
We were shocked to discover that we were almost sitting on top of MortadellaBo, a one-of-a-kind, four-day festival celebrating mortadella.
Much of Piazza Maggiore, the public square in the historic center of the city, was swathed in pink with white dots, a virtual slice of mortadella.
Booths were set up in the shape of a U on three sides of the square, facing San Petronius Basilica.
There was something for everyone: Cooking demos and classes (using mortadella as an ingredient, of course), tastings, retail stalls, entertainment for children and families, finger foods, and a pink restaurant under a tent.
Even the slicing machines were painted pink.
What is mortadella?
Mortadella is a large, cylindrical, pink cured sausage made from crushed pork and spices based on recipes that date back to the Middle Ages. The sausage also has a distinctive aroma.
In the Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, Marcella Hazan explains that the name is derived from the mortar that Romans used to pound sausage meat before it was stuffed into its casing.
Mortadella vs. bologna: What’s the difference?
However, what sets it apart from the bologna we eat in the U.S., is the meat’s visible fat in the form of white cubes.
Under European law, Mortadella di Bologna (PGI) has a protected geographical indication, meaning that it can only be called mortadella if it is produced in Bologna, in other areas of Emilia Romagna, or in neighboring regions in Italy.
How is mortadella eaten?
In Italy, it is traditionally served in very thin slices (almost like proscuitto) but it is also served in cubes (with toothpicks) as an appetizer or antipasto platter.
It is often paired with bread (making a tasty sandwich with cheese), added to salads, or used as the stuffing for Bolognese tortellini.
An article in the Los Angeles Times notes recently, mortadella has become a trendy addition to charcuterie plates and is also being paired with cocktails at bars and restaurants in the U.S.
There were so many mortadella makers and retailers at the festival that I stopped to ask a young woman how a consumer would know how to choose one mortadella from the others.
“It’s just a matter of taste,” she said, “The same way some people like Coke and others like Pepsi.”
She left us with only one option, to taste as many was we could, because all the explanatory literature associated with the festival was written entirely in Italian.
A festival celebrating a sausage: Why?
Co-sponsored by many governmental and corporate entities, the MortadellaBo Festival was spearheaded by the Consorzio Mortadella, a group established in 2001 to “protect, promote and enhance Mortadella di Bologna IGP.”
Some 31 companies formed the consortium, producing 95 percent of the mortadella products consumed.
We participated in one of many cooking classes on the program and learned from two excellent cooks how to make a pasta-free lasagna dish with sliced potatoes, fontina cheese and slices of mortadella.
When I asked the young woman working next to me why she was there, she sheepishly told me that she was crazy about mortadella although she acknowledged that is is often viewed as a low-brow food choice by some (akin to a hot dog in America.)
One reason for this: Mortadella is made from some of the least desirable parts of the pig, in an effort to make sure that no part is wasted.
Clearly, this event was intended to reverse the image problem of the lowly sausage.
There were lectures by doctors and nutritionists debunking myths that it wasn’t healthy. The experts explained that one serving of mortadella has no more calories that a serving of yogurt and fruit, and has less calories than a bowl of pasta.
They explained that consumption of mortadella is part of a balanced diet. The authentic product is high in protein and contains no fillers or preservatives and tastes nothing like the bologna we eat at home.
All the festival events were free. After mingling on the square with other festival attendees, we left not only with a renewed appreciation for mortadella but also a healthy respect for this unique festival that celebrates the famous Italian sausage.
- An interesting factoid from Wikipedia: “Mortadella was banned from import into the United States from 1967 to 2000 due to an outbreak of African swine fever in Italy. This ban was a pivotal part of the plot of the 1971 film La mortadella starring Sophia Loren.”
What are your feelings about mortadella? Do you love it or not?
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Where to Buy PGI Mortadella
Mortadella Bologna Tradizionale, Presidio Slow Food at Dolceterra
Rovagnati Gran Mortadella with Pistachio at Supermarket Italy
Bonfatti Mortadella Bologna IGP from Amazon
IF YOU GO
- Bologna Welcome (official tourism website)
- Emilia Romagna Tourism (official tourism information site)
[A version of this article was previously reprinted in the Huffington Post.
On Serious Eats: Salumi 101: Your Guide To Italy’s Finest Cured Meats
On Eater: How Lunch Became A Pile of Bologna.
On Tasting Table: The Only Places That Produce True Mortadella
Information about the Mortadella Festival in Bologna (now called, Mortadella, Please)