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Leap of faith brings authentic prosciutto from of Iowa

01/09/2014 9:58 AM

01/09/2014 8:00 PM

I was first introduced to La Quercia — pronounced (la-Kwair-cha) — a line of smoked meat products out of Iowa about three years ago.

Chef David DiGregorio was serving the company’s speck on the appetizer menu at what I consider the best pizzeria in the U.S., Pizzeria Via Stato in my hometown of Chicago. I was filming a segment of my food, wine, and spirits television show, Culinary Travels with Dave Eckert, and I was skeptical.

After all, I had produced an entire segment of the production and consumption of Speck Alto Adige on location in Italy. I gorged myself on Speck Alto Adige for the entire time I was there, and for a month or so after.

They just

had to send us a huge hunk of speck from one of the importers in New York for in-studio product shots, and someone

had to eat it after. So, naturally, I fell on the sword. It’s just the kind of guy I am. I was in heaven.

Speck Alto Adige was, and is, amazing — striking the perfect balance between salt and smoke, with incredibly complex flavors and aromas. It’s both delicate and full-bodied at the same time, which is rare, and I used to believe, impossible.

Nothing could ever approach it, let alone top it. But, DiGregorio said there was this guy in Iowa making speck and other classic smoked meats in the Italian style with free-range pigs eating, among other items, acorns.

So, I tried some, and oh my goodness. Every bit was complex and delicate as the Italian version, the La Quercia speck was also twice as moist — probably because it was twice as fresh. There can be no doubt it’s faster to get a ham out of Iowa than Italy, right?

I was an immediate fan. Then, I immediately forgot about it. Well, not really forgot about it. More like, never saw it again on a local menu. Out of sight, out of mind, I guess.

Fast forward to last year. While having an impromptu lunch at the always excellent Extra Virgin, I was perusing their selection of cured meat, and low and behold, there it was, La Quercia speck. I thought I heard Angels on High, but it might have just been a passing Metro bus.

In any event, I ordered it, came back the next day, ordered it again, then came back the following week, and ordered it a third time.

Yes, it’s that good. That’s when I got the idea to write about it for this blog. I started doing a little poking around, and what I found was truly fascinating. I hope you agree.

Herb and Kathy Eckhouse, who founded La Quercia, lived in Parma, Italy, while Herb worked with Pioneer Hi-Bred, a seed company. Parma, Italy, is the home of arguably the best cured meat in the world — prosciutto.

While he still worked for Pioneer, the Eckhouses moved back to Iowa. In 2001, they decided to make the leap into the cured meat business with La Quercia starting as an importer.

Its first order of whole prosciutto hams from Italy sold out in the blink of an eye, so they bought and sold more. Herb says the import business was a great way to test the water and see if people would buy prosciutto from a guy named Herb in Iowa. They did, so the Eckhouses decided

to make their own cured meats, but only after making batch after batch of prosciutto in their basement to make sure they got the recipe just right.

La Quercia means the Oak in Italian from which the acorns have been associated with the production of premium dry-cured ham for a thousand years. The Oak is also the state tree of Iowa, so it’s more the symbolic — it’s symmetry.

So, in a nondescript metal building in Norwalk, Iowa, south of Des Moines, the Eckhouses set out to make the healthiest, most nutritious, most pleasurable and, of course, tastiest cured meats they could.

I got this from La Quercia’s website:

“We started La Quercia to create premium quality American prosciutto, then applied what we learned to other cuts of pork. Our appreciation for cured meats grew out of the three and a half years we lived in Parma, Italy, prosciutto's area of origin, where we saw how the careful treatment of fine materials resulted in an accessible, sublime and entirely regional cuisine.

“Our ambition to create our own prosciutto came from our desire to take the bounty that surrounds us in Iowa to its highest expression. We seek to contribute to the growth of premium artisan — made American foods by offering unique dry cured meats of the finest quality.”

Clearly, the Eckhouses are serious about what they do and how they do it. I can’t possibly list all of the products La Quercia offers, but it is an impressive lineup to say the least. They feature eight different prosciuttos and specks, four different pancettas, three coppas, one lomo, two different shoulder offerings, a guanciale, two different lardos and three salamis — regular, spicy, and smoky. Okay, I guess I did list all their products, but I’d rather try them.

The Eckhouses called their products American made, American-inspired cured meats, but they are more than that. Their customers include some of the most famous chefs in the country, but it doesn’t appear that the Eckhouses are motivated by profit. For them, it seems to be more of a vision for the product and the planet — a sustainable line of products that is pleasurable at all levels.

In addition to the speck, I’ve also had the good fortune to try the La Quercia prosciutto, lomo, coppa, and spicy borsellino salami.

In the end, all I can say is “thank you.” Thank you to David DiGregorio to introducing me to the products, and thank you to the Eckhouses for pursuing such a delicious vision.

As they’re known to say “Life, liberty, and the prosciutto of happiness.” Indeed.

Dave Eckert is the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS-TV and Wealth TV for 12 seasons, or nearly 300 half-hour episodes produced on six continents. Eckert is also an avid wine collector and aficionado, having amassed a personal wine cellar of some 2,000 bottles.

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