After spending three and a half years in Parma, Italy, Herb and Kathy Eckhouse returned to Iowa with dreams of making prosciutto. These dreams led them on a cured meat journey that started with Herb studying the art of prosciutto making for five years and experimenting by making it in their home. In 2005 their dream expanded and they moved their newly formed company, La Quercia (pronounced La Kwair-cha), to its current production facility in Norwalk, Iowa. Though it was a a risky endeavor to undertake, their dreams began to pay off when La Quercia Prosciutto Americano caught the attention of food critics soon after their first orders shipped; praises have been sung ever since.
Intrigued to understand the magic behind what Jeffrey Steingarten called the “best prosciutto you can find in this country, imported or domestic,” the Heavy Table took a trip down to the facility to witness what Herb Eckhouse has called “assisting in a miracle.”
La Quercia’s production facility is designed to mimic the seasons, respective to the origin of drying meat through the winter as a preservation method. Each Friday, a shipment of pork arrives from Iowa suppliers: Becker Lane Organic Farm, Organic Valley, Niman Ranch, Heritage Acres, and Eden Farms. The morning is dedicated to salting the legs — the most important step in the process, according to the Eckhouses.
With Italian opera blasting from the stereo — we’re told that the hams like Italian opera — the team of nine workers, including the Eckhouses, methodically works through pallet after pallet of hams. Each leg is trimmed, salted, and quality-checked by Herb before being placed on a movable cart.
Once carts are full, they are moved to the first of many rooms that parallel the conditions of the seasons.
Eckhouse is quick to remind a visitor that the roots of prosciutto making are quite rustic: “It’s something people have been doing for a long time without any technical means,” he explains. He then continues in explanation of the highly technical design of their facility: “If you’re going to do enough to sell, you need to have something reasonably predictable.” This necessitates a uniform environment, control of temperature and humidity, in what he calls “the ham zone.”
After a two week period in pre-riposo (pre-rest in Italian) that rapidly dries the meat, the carts are moved to the next season for a slow process of rest — riposo.
Spring is a short season, so the room where the carts are moved is a small hallway, the purpose of which is solely to raise the temperature to about 60 degrees. Once at this desired temperature, the meat is moved to a room, a virtual warehouse of wall-to-wall hams, where it continues to dry but, with the aid of the warm temperature, now also begins to age. The last stage of prosciutto making includes a “physical barrier” applied to the meat to prevent further moisture loss.
When it is time, the hams are trimmed and then sliced or packaged whole.
The Quercia products can be found in restaurants and stores throughout the Midwest and can also be ordered directly online. In the Twin Cities area, Surdyk’s sells their line of meats available for slicing in their deli.