There’s an Italian saying, del maiale non si butta via niente – “throw away no part of the pig”. But anyone passing through Mortara might be forgiven for thinking that the proverb actually talks about not the pig but the goose; for here, as in many other parts of Italy, the webbed foot is almost as highly prized as the cleft hoof. History teaches us that every part of the pig can be eaten; nothing, after the slaughter, should go to waste. If we’re going to kill it, we must respect and make use of every part of it.
Italy was once ruled by hunger and poverty, and that hunger and poverty gave birth to one of the country’s most famous foodstuffs, salami. This uncooked, seasoned sausage came from the need to put every part of the pig to good use, even the cuts you’d rather not know about, but which are no less tasty for all their gristliness. Also in Mortara, a Pavian town which lies a few miles from the Lombardy-Piedmont border, salami is taken very seriously. But not pork salami: Mortara’s cold cuts are made from goose meat.
Some say that this curious recipe owes its origins to Mortara’s old Jewish community, which really established itself here around the start of the seventeenth century. Naturally, Judaic law prohibits the eating of pork, so the local Jewish butchers had the ingenious idea to make use of the geese that proliferated on the plains of Pavia. Back in the day, goose was considered a poor pork substitute, but butchers’ techniques evolved to the point that goose salami achieved a dignity and excellence of its own, and – in spite of its possible Jewish heritage – ended up cross-pollinating with its traditional porky forebear. We’re talking about lean goose meat being mixed with chopped-up pork (usually from the shoulder) and pig fat (usually pancetta).
Once it’s all been mashed up, the paste is seasoned with salt, pepper and spices, which vary according to the producer. The salami casing is made from goose skin, which should have already been cut to the correct length and kept under salt. Then the salami is left to season for around three months. The result is a soft, pale-coloured meat, with a sweet, delicate flavour. The most subtle palates can even identify a hint of violet therein.Today, the Mortara goose salami enjoys the European Union’s PGI certificate of quality control, and has found a prestigious place in the vast landscape of Italian gastronomy. But it would be reductive to talk about Mortara solely in terms of its salami, however highly prized the salami may be. The whole Lomellina area, where Mortara stands, is famed for its groaning tables, where you are likely to find ciccioli d’oca (think pork scratchings, but from goose rinds); marbrè, which is a goose gelatin, with a bit of pig tongue thrown in; and goose bresaola, which is aged for at least 40 days. There’s even a goose prosciutto, which has to age for still longer – some 70 days.Another feather in the local cap is goose liver, known also by the Latin-sounding ficatum. This liver is sourced from corn-fed, naturally raised geese; they are not force fed or artificially fattened. Instead, they consume moderate, controlled quantities of food, depending on their current stage in the fattening process, on the weight that they have reached and on the dosage of food hitherto administered.
Once the bird has been butchered, the liver is cleaned of impurities, salted and seasoned, then laid to rest in a terrine or packed into blocks and baked in the oven. Ideally, it should be served with some nice toasted bread, perhaps accompanied by a tipple of dessert wine.