Don Day’s Wife’s parents called it motor trailer. Don Day’s parents called it dead secretary (Perry Mason was the most watched show in those days). I didn’t care what they called it. Mortadella was my favorite sandwich meat.
I started to really love mortadella long ago in a dirty but lovable old town known as Hamilton, Ontario, Canada when Don Day was a poor struggling student (and already married and a parent). Poverty required purchasing food that was extremely cost effective (though in Hamilton we preferred the simple word cheap). And Don Day’s favorite cheap luncheon meat was mortadella. It was 39 cents a pound and, when on special, three pounds for a dollar. There were other processed meats I could buy for the same price: plain bologna (or baloney, as we called it), pickle and pimento loaf, macaroni and cheese loaf, but mortadella had a certain spicing that I was hooked on.
I used to purchase my mortadella in one of those mini ethnic supermarkets that were popular then and are making a comeback now. It had a 20 foot wide meat counter and a full time butcher. When I’d order my three pounds, the butcher, who looked a lot like the guy on the Chef Boyardee can, and I’m sure had a half tube of Brylcreem on his hair and a couple more dabs at the end of his moustache to twirl it up, would do one of those throaty wohoho laughs, a la Maurice Chevalier, tighten his hand into a fist, and raise his arm into an upright position from the elbow. I thought it had to do with the size of the sausage I was purchasing; I later discovered his mischievous antics related to something slightly different. But I was definitely in the right ballpark.
You see, what I didn’t know then but I sure do now is that mortadella contained something that probably has the greatest reputation as a cure for what, in medieval times, was referred to as “sluggish loving”. Myrtle is often the active ingredient that is associated with that “Love Potion Number Nine” that made it into the punch at frat parties and high school dances (but never at the ones that Don Day attended). Myrtle may even have similar properties to the synthetic ingredients found in MDMA or what is now more popularly known as ecstasy. Wow! Who would have thought?
Mortadella starts as finely ground up pork from some of those less-in-demand portions of the animal (sorry for the delicate way of saying it but if I told you more, you might never eat it again). Mixed with that are those white bits you see, actually lardons or chunks of fat from the throat (hope you’re still reading), those infamous myrtle berries, coriander, anise, white pepper, wine, peppercorns (the black bits you see) and pistachios (which are also visible…or at least they used to be).
And this finally brings me to why Don Day would dedicate a blog that’s about food in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, to an Italian delicacy. You see, in Toronto, where I spend almost three quarters of my life, you can no longer buy real mortadella. Due to the possibility of allergic reactions to the pistachios, my favorite cheap sausage has gone off the market. Gone from Don Day’s desires for nine months of every year.
But not in Mexico. In San Miguel, I used to go to the very charming Cava on Calle Zacateros and have it sliced in front of me while I’d salivate. But alas, Cava has now gone the way of Canada and is only only selling mortadella without pistachios. I then switched to Luna de Queso, a little further out on the same street but after it’s changed its name to Salida a Celaya. But double alas, suddenly it was gone from there. There is, however, one last oasis where it can still be found. It’s Mega, San Miguel’s very best big supermarket. It’s made by Penaranda. And you’ll need to locate the package that says Mortadela Con Pistache.
And how does Don Day like savoring his mortadella? Well ideally it would be in a muffuleta, the sandwich that got its start at Central Grocery in New Orleans, a shop that Don Day had a treasured t-shirt from until it recently started to look too Dwight Yoakum for Don Day’s Wife. The problem with making a muffuleta sandwich is it also requires the difficult to find in San Miguel provolone cheese and the impossible to find in San Miguel olive salad mix.
So here’s another simply crafted sandwich that turns bread into wichcraft. Take eight slices of mortadella, divide them in half and put them in a hot frying pan or on a stovetop grill for about a minute, then flip them over and leave for another minute. You’ll have mortadella that is slightly crispy on the outside but still soft and juicy on the inside. Place it in the end of a sourdough loaf (Don Day likes the one from La Mesa Grande in San Miguel) along with a couple of slices of leaf lettuce, a couple of slices of Swiss cheese and a thin spread of Dijon mustard. Close the sandwich up and place it in a 300 degree F oven for two minutes or just long enough to melt the cheese. Serve it with chili sauce, sweet dills or pickled onions on the side.
If you didn’t grow up with mortadella, I’m a little doubtful that I can persuade you to eat it now. Don Day thinks you should at least try it though. Mortadella is the pride of the city of Bologna which Don Day considers the heart and soul of Italian cuisine. Mortadella has long been the distant second cousin to salami. Make it the first cousin it deserves to be. If not for the pistachios, maybe the myrtle berries.
“I took my troubles down to Madame Rue. You know that gypsy with the gold-capped tooth…”