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MORTADELLABÒ: FOOD FESTIVAL & MORE
Food & Drink | Traditions | Events
Coming back to grace Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore for its second year, is MortadellaBò.
If you’ve heard about last year’s success of this budding food festival, entirely dedicated to the history and culture of Mortadella, you’ll want to keep the 9th-12th of October free. During its first four-day sojourn, MortadellaBò drew 100,000 visitors – and for good reason: with degustation sessions, and guided workshops, all free of charge, and with even more on offer this year, you’ll be hard pressed to avoid the centre of Bologna, come October. Whether you’re a casual tourist, a mortadella fanatic, or somewhere in between, rest assured, this festival is open to adults, children, and schools alike, as well as professionals in the sector.
The focal point of the exhibit centres on the educational and cultural activities. To get involved, all you need to do is book a place and turn up. More cooking labs are scheduled for this year, which are led by local chefs, restauranteurs, and experts, guiding participants in short cooking courses, and even teaching how to properly slice mortadella.
The Art of Tasting sessions will take place in the tasting areas (yes, that one baffled me too), with chefs and tasting artisans leading tastings for mortadella, and other traditional foods and wines. When you’re not busy becoming an expert on cooking with mortadella, MortadellaBò has a number of rose tinted restaurants, such as Pink Restaurant and Pink Finger Foods, and retail areas for you to buy mortadella & related paraphernalia, such as Emporio Rosa, Mortadellateca, and Mortadella Store. For those who might be puzzled by the festival’s dedication to the culture of this cold cut, Mortadella is shrouded in pride by the Bolognese, who also, somewhat confusingly, call it Bologna. As a strange looking, chubby lump of something or other, the untouched sausage is a question mark, and quite possibly a bit underwhelming at first sight – until it is cut. This reveals the surprisingly darling pink body of the sausage, with uniformed white flecks, and an occasional guest appearance from a pistachio, or peppercorn perhaps. This sweet colouring is harnessed by MortadellaBò to full effect: from seating areas to awnings to a dress worn by their “Sposa Perfetta” to promote the event, you’ll see the mortadella pattern cleverly strewn across the festival. But, beyond its appearance, mortadella has its own history.
The cold cut dates as far back as 1233, on statues of the Cathedral of Nice, which decreed it to be a food for holidays such as Easter, Pentecost and Christmas, an indication of its early veneration. Mortadella was so highly regarded that it was used as a form of currency in the 14th and 15th centuries in Bologna. With its early beginnings, ‘mortadella’ has ambiguous etymology, with two prevailing theories. The first presumes that it takes its name from when friars would grind pork into a smooth paste using a mortar (mortaia), while the other suggests its name was taken from the original mortadella spice, myrtle, and the evolution from its Latin adjective, ‘myratus’, meaning ‘seasoned with myrtle’, eventually became ‘mortadella’. Mortadella has strict regulations imposed upon it by its Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) rating, which ensures that authentic Mortadella Di Bologna is void of artificial colours, flavours and preservatives, as well as assuring its precise ratio of pork to fat. However, mortadella didn’t have an official recipe until 1367, when the rules for its manufacture were established by the Corporazione dei Salaroli. Recipes before this could include ingredients such as boiled pork liver, and fatty veal haunch.
Now, a homogenised mixture of striated muscles, stomach, and heart fat are used to make the ground meat, according to LGP specification. Salt and pepper give the cold cut its flavour, with additional spices added, such as garlic, cloves, nutmeg, and pistachios. Originally, the meat was encased in beef bladders, but modern technology has resulted in manufactured fibrous casing becoming the mortadella casing favourite for many producers. Variations of mortadella exist around the world, diverging from this recipe. Most famously, American baloney is a true testament to the claim that the further you get from Bologna, the less mortadella resembles the home-grown variety, in appearance, and savour. For a true taste of the cream of the crop, try mortadella as it was intended at artisan producers, Pasquini & Brusiani.
Mortadella can vary in size, with industrial produce ranging from mini versions of 500g up to nearly 2 tons. In 1989, the Veroni Company created a 2,864-pound mortadella that was over 19 foot long – but don’t expect mortadella of this size at this year’s MortadellaBò; artisan producers typically favour sizes between 12 and 14 pounds.
Despite the varying sizes you can buy mortadella, it is generally accepted it should be eaten in strips, sliced as thinly as possible, something which used to inspire competition. Before the inception of meat slicing machines, there used to be contests for who could slice mortadella the thinnest and fastest – something which you can try your hand at, with MortadellaBò’s workshops on mortadella slicing.
When you’re not painting the town pink with your newfound knowledge of this delightfully versatile cold cut, you might be curious about the rest of Bologna’s fine cuisine. With a city nicknamed ‘la grassa’, meaning ‘the fat one’, it would be a shame not to.
My own gastronomic experience of Bologna is one that I would do every day if I could – alas, location and metabolism fail me in this endeavour. For a meal yielding a flavour that comes mostly from the food itself, and partially from the description behind the dish, head over to All’Osteria Bottega. As you order, you will realise that each plate has its own story, exuberantly told by Minarelli, the founder and manager of this modestly size restaurant burrowed into the walls of Via Santa Caterina. Starting the meal with deliciously thinly sliced mortadella, followed by a pasta dish topped with cheese matured in bees wax, every bite felt enriched with the considerable knowledge of my food, that I’d never thought to ask about before.
Leaving the restaurant, plump with food and knowledge, I thought I’d never eat again. That invariably lasted all of five minutes, until I was back in the centre, eyeing up the beckoning pastries of Paolo Atti & Figli, on a street whose fruit stalls twinkled just as brightly as the rest. This store, which opened in 1880, and is still run by its founding family, bakes fresh bread twice a day, has freshly hand-rolled pasta, and sweets to delight anyone with a "debole per i dolci".
Approaching the counter at a place like Paolo Atti is a dangerous thing, but one that I would recommend not to miss. Despite promising myself a small post-prandial treat to briefly silence my sweet tooth, I found myself coming away with two bags of sweets and savouries, vowing to make them last, and once again, breaking my promise to myself. If you’re planning to follow suit, and experience Bologna’s gastronomy to the point of prolonged, food-induced indolence, consider spending the night at Bologna’s oldest hotel, the Grand Hotel Majestic, an easy waddle from Piazza Maggiore, and a stay that lives up to its name.
With MortadellaBò taking place in the heart of the historical centre, you can’t help but feel the history of the city in the shadow of the two towers, and in the steps up to San Petronio Basilica, which sits at the south end of Piazza Maggiore.
You don’t have to venture much further than the piazza to learn more about the city – Museum of the History of Bologna, housed in the Medieval Palazzo Pepoli, takes the visitor from the Etruscan period to present-day Bologna in a chronological journey that uses an old-meets-new multimedia approach.
Venturing further afield from MortadellaBò’s location (an entire street away) takes the curious visitor to the first permanent seat of the University of Bologna, the Archiginnasio Palace, now tucked between the shops that line the porticos. As the oldest university in the world, it is consequently alma mater to so many, including the revered minds of Dante, Thomas Becket and Copernicus.
The building, designed by Antonio Morandi, signifies the beginning of a series of renovations of Bologna’s city centre in 1563, under papal orders. Pope Pius IV, an alumnus of the institution himself, was not only keen for the university to be more controllable in light of the counter-reformation, but also more unified, as teaching had been previously scattered around the city, using public buildings and cloisters.
One of the most compelling features of this building is apparent as soon as you enter: the walls riddled with thousands of heraldic tributes, proudly displaying the colours, crests and shields of students and professors of the past, in a surprisingly symmetrically pleasing way, considering their sheer volume. Although a lot of the building is not open to visitors, as the City Library has taken up residence since 1938, one of the old university rooms that can still be seen is the Teatro Anatomico. Strikingly wooden all over, and moving in octagonal tiers around the centre of the theatre, there stand twelve statues of physicians around the room, including Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, and at the front, two skinless statues, credited to Lelli and Giannotti. These give a hint of the room’s past dalliance with anatomy and dissections, which were attended by official representatives of the state and church, as well as common priests, citizens, and noble women.
Going one step further from Piazza Maggiore and Accademia, Santa Maria Della Vita is one church worth visiting, as it houses two clusters of the largest collection of Renaissance terracotta sculptures. In the sanctuary of the church stands ‘Compianto sul Cristo Morto’, by Niccolò dell’Arca, a composition that was unprecedented in the magnitude of drama it conveyed at the time of its commission in 1463. The oratory holds the ‘Transito della Vergine’ by Alfonso Lombardi, commissioned by the Confraternita dei Brattuti in 1519. Both works are remarkably emotive, with the thoughts and feelings of the subjects etched into their faces, and their composure so telling, that they leave the viewer certain of each of their movements, despite having been stationary for 500 years. A quick trip over to Bologna Cathedral holds another Lombardi, the ‘Lamentation of Christ’.
Walking around, you’ll find yourself passing under an important part of Bologna’s history. As a city that once had the same rate of urban expansion as Paris, Bologna had to adapt to its fast growing population; this is how Porticos came about. Existing homes were being expanded above street level, eventually requiring support from wooden beams, giving rise to the porticos that line the streets of Bologna today. These beautiful structures became outdoor workspaces for craftsmen, endowing multi-seasonal benefits – giving shelter from the winter rains, and providing shade from the summer sun – a feature that still lends itself to habitants and tourists.
Portico di San Luca, a 666 arched walkway, leads from the outskirts of Bologna to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di Santa Lucia, residing upon the Colle della Guardia, a site of pilgrimage since its 12th century beginnings. With 3.5 kilometres of portico one way, and almost 40 more in Bologna itself, these historical structures provide the perfect opportunity to discover Bologna, whilst walking off all the mortadella, no matter the weather.
Article by Ileana Boyes
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