Monday, 29 October 2012


I first visited Italy on 11 September 2001. Cousin Pen took us there by motorway from Lorgues in Provence to just over the border: Ventimiglia. The purpose of the trip was to go to the post office to pay a parking fine that one of my other cousins had incurred. It was a good excuse.

As we drove through the tunnel at the border, I concentrated, hard, on the fact that we were entering Italy. On the other side, we descended into the town.

The so-called purpose of going, the post office, was quickly over. Of much greater interest to us all was Pen's favourite food shop.

You know how many supermarkets in England have a cheerful "Try before you buy" sign at the delicatessen counter. I always feel slightly guilty for asking and, when I do, it becomes such a big deal to produce a wafer thin fragment of ham or whatever, presented to me on a cocktail stick, that I end up buying some. Possibly the point.

The lady behind the counter in Pen's shop had a different approach. I would express the vaguest interest in a particular salami or some Parma ham and she would immediately seize the article, rush to the slicing machine and produce enough for all three of us to have a large mouthful. Of course, we would end up buying some. A lot. Possibly the point. But the feeling in that shop was one of generosity. (Later, Pen would reveal that the woman running the shop may in fact have, dishonestly or otherwise, charged us incorrectly and in the shop’s favour – but let me give the shopkeeper the benefit of the doubt. I warmed to her.)

The title of this piece is Mortadella and that is one thing I did not buy at that shop in Ventimiglia. But I saw it for the first time I can remember. Not surprisingly. It was the largest sausage I have ever seen. Slightly off-putting.

Since then, though, I have grown to love it. As cousin Pen told me later, it is great picnic food. Folded into good bread, with slices of tomato, lettuce and a little mayonnaise , its moist slightly bland saltiness is welcome at the edge of the road on the way, say, from Rome to Lorgues.

But be warned: there is plenty of rogue Mortadella out there. I would say as general rules:

Only buy it loose, never in packets.
The bigger the better.
It should be studded with peppercorns and either pistachios or pieces of truffle. If not, avoid it.
If it looks particularly dry, don't bother - one of the exceptions to the rule of dryness in sausages. Having said that, once the outer slice has been removed, it may be better within. It will be a good test of the integrity of the person trying to sell it to you: does that person try and include the first slice in what you're being sold, or discard it?
Ask for it to be sliced thinly.
Eat it quickly.
If you are disappointed, don't give up on it. It is variable.

Part 2 of the trip to Ventimiglia to follow.

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