Monday, January 16, 2012

That's No Baloney! Brazilian Mortadela

A gastronomic passion that's shared by Brazil and Italy is the large, often shockingly-pink cold cut known as either mortadella or mortadela. The number of l's in the word differentiates Italian spelling (two l's) from Portuguese (only one). A noble sausage with a long pedigree, the image of mortadella has been tarnished in North America by cheap and sometimes nasty versions sold as Bologna sausage or baloney. No one is sure how Bologna came to be pronounced baloney in the USA, but it did. And somehow baloney's meaning was expanded to mean not only an Italian sausage but also foolishness or nonsense. Some theorize that this meaning came from the popular conception that bologna was made from the odds and ends of the slaughtering process, but no one has been able to prove the word's etymology.

In Brazil, mortadela is not looked down upon in the same way as baloney is in the USA. Nor is it worshipped and treated as a national treasure as it sometimes is in Italy. It's considered one of the basic cold cuts, and mortadela can be found in almost every butcher shop, delicatessen and supermarket in the country. Brazilian mortadela normally comes in the form of large round sausages, weighing up to 14 lbs (6 kgs). In Italy, by contrast, some mortadelle reach the stupendous size of 28 lbs (12 kgs). Other differences between the Italian and Brazilian versions is that the classic Italian version is made from 100% pork and the Brazilian with a mixture of pork and beef. The manufacture of mortadela in Brazil begins with the grinding together of the meats to be used, then adding spices and cubes of pure pork fat to the mixture (optional). Then the mixture is used to fill either an artificial or natural sausage casing. The sausage is then very lightly smoked and finally steamed for 18 hours at a temperature of 175F (80F). Once the steaming is completed the sausage is cooled by being sprayed with cold water and then hung for at least 24 hours to dry. Although mortadela is ready to eat as soon as it is dry, most butchers suggest that it be allowed to age for one week or more at cellar temperature to allow the flavor to develop.

Most Brazilian mortadela is consumed as part of a tray of cold cuts, or more likely as a filling for a sandwich made from a French roll. The mortadela sandwich is particularly associated with the city of São Paulo, with its large Italian community, though it's eaten everywhere in the country. Previously, Flavors of Brazil published an article about the famous mortadela sandwich of the Bar do Mané in São Paulo's municipal market.

As with all processed meats, the range of quality of Brazilian mortadela is enormous, and it's important to buy a high-quality product from a respected producer. The Brazilian Agriculture Department has established four mortadela categories and set out minimum standards for each one. The lowest standard is called simply mortadela, and higher quality ones are called mortadela tipo bologna, mortadela italiana and mortadela bologna, in ascending order of quality. The standards for plain mortadela as very low - "meat from any variety of animal, with up to 60% of meat mechanically separated, organs and offal (stomach, heart, tongue, liver, kidney), skin and tendon (limit 10%) and fat." The best quality, mortadela bologna, is restricted to sausages made from "muscular cuts of pork and beef, ham, in a rounded form, without addition of starch."

I guess the next time we at Flavors of Brazil run into mortadela on a tray of cold cuts, we're going to ask it it's plain ole' mortadela or mortadela bologna!


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