Friday, December 31, 2010

A Little Taste of Italy in Iowa: La Quercia’s Artisan Prosciutto

Growing up in Appalachia, right in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, I learned that great food can come from anywhere—a five star restaurant, a local diner, or your mother’s humble kitchen.

So when I first tasted La Quercia’s signature prosciutto at Picco, my brother’s Bay Area restaurant, I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that La Quercia was located in Iowa.

I thought, “Go Iowa—way to show Italy how it’s done!"

La Quercia's Freshly Salted Prosciutto
That’s right—La Querica, which means “the Oak” in Italian, isn’t in Italy. Heck, they’re not even in Spain (although they do make their own version of Jamon Iberico called Acorn Edition). They’re located in Norwalk, Iowa, a city on the outskirts of Des Moines, population of 6,684.

So how did founders Kathy and Herb Eckhouse wind up making salumi (Italian cured meats) in Iowa? “We had spent three and a half years in Parma, Italy, and of course loved the food and the culture around food,” explains Kathy. “Returning home to Iowa, we marveled at the amazing bounty of the land and thought that we should do more than just product commodity crops and products. The United States has shown that we could make great wine, then great cheese, so now it's time for great meats, including cured meats.”

Herb Eckhouse Giving a Tour of La Quercia
Before they launched La Quercia, the Eckhouses spent five years researching, experimenting, and making prosciutto at their house. But they’ve come a long way from curing prosciutto in their garage. Over the last few years, their operation has grown substantially. Their cured meats now grace the deli case at Whole Foods, the pages of Zingerman’s catalog (currently the only source for the acorn edition), and the menus of top restaurants like Publican in Chicago and wine bars like Lou in Los Angeles.

I recently had the opportunity to visit La Quercia and tour their facility. Not only was I blown away by their literally hands-on operation (they process all their salumi by hand, coaxing it through its laborious transformation), but also by their passion for their work.

Even better, sustainability is a huge part of their mission. “We don't use animals from confinement operations, or animals that receive sub-therapeutic antibiotics, or animals that eat animal byproducts,” Kathy explains. “We want to be part of a truly sustainable process—sustainable for the land, the farmer, La Quercia, the restaurants and retailers, the consumers—everyone in the farm to table continuum.” Also, having a domestic source for prosciutto improves the carbon footprint.

My La Quercia Goodie Bag
I left La Quercia with an armful of goodies—bootleg pancetta from a new breed of pig that they’re testing and two packages of prosciutto crumbles, which I’ve been putting in everything from breakfast omelets, to fried squash blossoms, to handmade ravioli, to risotto. The flavor of their meat is exquisite—rich, flavorful, with great depth. It elevates every dish that it graces, and pairs beautifully with all manner of wine and spirits.

Lucky for us, Kathy Eckhouse agreed to answer a few questions about La Quercia. She discusses how Iowa has more pigs than people, what it’s like to see her product on the menus of top restaurants, and why prosciutto is like fine wine.

La Quercia's Green Label Prosciutto
Q&A with Kathy Eckhouse, Founder of La Quercia:

Domestic Divas: When most people hear the word, prosciutto, they think of Italy, not Iowa. How does being in Iowa influence your product?

Kathy Eckhouse: Iowa has more pigs than people, enormously more! So this is where the pigs are, giving us ready access to the raw material we need. It makes a lot more sense to have our base here and ship the fully cured meats—a much better carbon footprint! Unfortunately, despite the millions of pigs slaughtered in Iowa each year, we choose from less than 1 percent of the total, because of our stringent animal welfare standards.

Domestic Divas: Many great chefs consider your prosciutto to be the best available in the United States, either imported or domestic. What goes into making great prosciutto?

Kathy Eckhouse: We really appreciate the great support we've received from people around the country. Prosciutto's only ingredients are pork, sea salt, and a lot of time, so the quality of the pork is paramount. The other crucial element is attention to detail—with something as simple and elemental as prosciutto, there's nothing to hide behind. So we are pretty obsessive about everything that is involved—how the pigs are farrowed and raised and what they eat and what their living quarters are, what happens at the slaughterhouse, how the legs are trimmed, how much salt we put on and how and where it's put, the trimming and hanging and aging, and then the final trim and packaging. Lots and lots of details!

Domestic Divas: Your operation is very hands on (no pun intended). How important is this personal attention to the quality of your product?

Kathy Eckhouse: We are genuine artisan producers. Herb and I are out on the floor a lot—we always do the salting, for example, and work side by side with our employees in all the work areas, so we know what's going on and we all share ideas about how to improve what we're making.

Domestic Divas: Do you get excited when you see La Quercia featured on menus in some of the country's best restaurants like Publican in Chicago?

Kathy Eckhouse: Of course! It's a tremendous honor to be part of what such gifted people who care so much about good food are offering to their customers. It may sound silly, but we are truly humbled and inspired by their recognition. We want to be worthy!

Domestic Divas: What are the differences between the Green Label and your other labels?

Kathy Eckhouse: La Quercia Green Label is certified organic and comes from Berkshire cross, pasture-raised pigs from Becker Lane Organic Farm, a 6th generation NE Iowa farm. The pigs have an exclusively organic diet. The certification process is rigorous and time-consuming for the farmer; the feed costs 2 to 4 times as much. La Quercia also has organic certification so we can maintain that organic identity through the entire process. All the inputs for organic (from the farmer's feed, to the cost of the meat to us, to any spices used) are 2 to 4 times as high as conventional inputs. That's why organic is so expensive. It's our personal favorite and what we like to eat at home.

Domestic Divas: What's next for La Quercia? Any new products in the pipeline?

Kathy Eckhouse: High quality artisan dry-cured meat is like high quality artisanal wine. We're working on expanding our line of cured meat "varietals." Our "prosciutto varietals" are dry-cured hams made, like wine, from specific sources with distinctive animal breeding and husbandry. Right now we offer La Quercia Rossa (pure-bred Berkshire), Green Label (organic), and Acorn Edition (acorn fed).We are excited to start our new line of Tamworth cured meats. Tamworth pigs are a threatened heirloom breed, known for their good temperament and hardiness outdoors, and especially valued as great bacon pigs because of their balance of meat and fat. These pigs are pasture raised by Russ Kremer and two other farmers in the Missouri Ozarks. We just started getting this meat in and it looks great.

Article was also published on Michael Green's website (click here to read).

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