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Mortadella & Me

It's funny, isn't it, how we all of us have our culinary blindspots. I remember reading about Elizabeth David's devotion to instant coffee, for example. A woman who spent her life and career extolling the virtues of good food made with quality ingredients drank gallons of nasty old Nescaf' daily. In such cases the phrase, 'do as I say, not as I do,' comes to mind. The reality is, however much any of us may preach, we all have a blind spot. Mine is Mortadella.

In all of my cooking I would always say only use/buy/eat meat which has been raised and slaughtered responsibly. Here in Sardinia we are lucky as most of ours comes from friends or neighbours, or the family. Many have their own livestock, and rear and slaughter them at home. They live free-range and are killed with a stud-gun which can easily be purchased from any of the many agricultural shops nearby. Worrying about the provenance of the meat I eat is something I never do anymore. When I was in professional kitchens I was always aware that we used trusted suppliers and producers who farmed responsibly, and outside work I was pretty much a vegetarian (at least I never bought meat). I used to smugly congratulate myself on my ethics.

Then I moved here, and I discovered Mortadella. The recipe for Mortadella is a closely guarded secret, and there is absolutely no guarantee of how the pigs that make it are reared. Or, in fact, like any processed meat, exactly how it is made. I was talking to a woman at a wedding recently (our eyes met over the charcuterie) and she told me her son had worked in a Mortadella factory for a while. She said his experience there had put him off the pastel pink sausage for life. Whether it was the pork itself or the processing which had turned him I didn't discover. When it comes to some things, its best not to ask. Sometimes ignorance really is bliss. As with Campari, my other favourite Italian export, I'd rather not really know how it was made, as I'm sure it would put me off it. I'd rather sip in happy ignorance, believing it's still made in the back of that cafe in Novara by Gaspare himself.

Mortadella is a magical thing. Pale, smooth, rosy pink, with chunks of square fat and slithers of pale green pistachios, there is something both gloriously naff and irresistibly decadent about it. Recorded first in the Middle Ages (though it was most likely consumed in Roman times too), this ground-pork sausage is loved all over Italy, though it should (according to PGI) always be made in Bologna. I'd never tried it until I moved here.

Suddenly I was transported back to my childhood and the tins of Princes ham my mother used to give us for lunch. We loved this ham - a solid, boat-shaped block set in quivering amber jelly, the tin had to be opened with a special key. It was an exotic and an intoxicating treat. The smell as you turned the key filled your nostrils, the unmistakable scent of hammy goodness.

That delicious hamminess filled my nostrils once again when I opened my first packet of Mortadella. But unlike the tinned ham the true magic of Mortadella for me lies in its texture. Its aroma and spiciness is wonderful yes, but it's the melt-in-the-mouth quality which drives me wild. When sliced in the most delicate of sheets it dissolves on the tongue like a piggy whisper. Because the pork is ground to a pulp (its name most likely derives from the same Latin source as a mortar), the pearly smoothness of the sausage means it stands alone when compared to a traditional salami or sausage. It is truly the silky-smooth sausage of the gods.

And so, here it is, my big sausage-shaped blindspot. For me to continue to love Mortadella it is necessary that there remains an air of mystery about it. I would rather not know exactly how it was made, or with what. Love is blind after all, and I would rather not see my rosy Mortadella's faults. Instead I will continue to love it and to live with rose-tinted spectacles, or as the Italians have it with 'proscuitto nell'occhi' (ham in the eyes).


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