We woke up in a hotel room in Des Moines, Iowa. It was a nice morning, but I knew there was not going to be much breakfast for me. We wandered out into the lobby, bleary-eyed tired and needing to hurry, because our guide for the Iowa Pork Board tour was coming to pick us up soon, really soon. I scanned the room and there was cold cereal and stale-looking danishes and a fancy make-your-own waffle bar. The land of gluten. (I can't eat gluten, you see. Danny and Lu can, so they ate some.) There really was not much for breakfast, except a banana and a handful of the gluten-free granola someone kindly bought me for this trip. Not much.
But I wasn't worried or upset. There's not much point in that anyway. But I was feeling pretty calm. Because I knew we were on our way to the La Quercia factory, the site where some of the most incredible prosciutto in the world is made. A small Iowa town seemingly made mostly of corn fields and farmhouses and flat land and big, big sky. You would never think that some of the earthiest, most memorable prosciutto you will ever taste is produced in such a small white building.
And when we entered, we immediately met Herb Eckhouse, one of the founders of the place. We were already a little in awe of him, from reading this piece in Saveur magazine years ago, and reading that the meticulous folks at Cook's Illustrated did a taste comparison of La Quercia proscuitto with Prosciutto di Parma and Prosciutto di San Daniele and declared La Quercia the hands-down winner, and remembering that Jeffrey Steingarten proclaimed La Quercia “…the best prosciutto in the world, foreign or domestic.” And after eating our first La Quercia prosciutto, at Contigo in San Francisco, we were hooked. As I wrote back then: “There’s a sweetness to this one that we had never tasted in prosciutto before, a slight kiss of it, along with the salt, and something a tiny bit nutty in there.” We wanted to meet the people who made La Quercia prosciutto as soon as we took our first bite.
Turns out that Herb Eckhouse is one of the most down-to-earth, interesting people we have ever met. As soon as we sat down, he brought out small plates of prosciutto, gestured with his hands, and asked us to eat.
Who needed breakfast when this lay before me?
This is Herb Eckhouse. He and his wife, Kathy, founded La Quercia in their house 10 years ago. Now their prosciutto is not only considered one of the best in the world by people who know and love food, but it is used in some of the best restaurants in the country. You would expect that the man who runs this company might be quite imposing.
However, Herb was friendly and direct with us, as our favorite people always are. He sat and talked with us for over an hour before we donned hair nets and toured the warehouse. I have to admit that both Danny and I were so moved by Herb's passion for what he does that we both felt a little teary talking to him, at times. (I wish that Kathy had been there too, as it's quite clear that they are a team through all of this. I don't want to give the impression that Herb is the sole star. Kathy was in California when we went, or we would be talking about her too.) This man is amazing.
Herb and Kathy began LaQuercia after a three-year stint in Italy. If you have ever been to Italy, you know that thin slices of well-cured prosciutto are as daily a requirement as tiny cups of steaming-hot espresso. When Danny and I spent our honeymoon in Umbria, we grew used to the morning bites of prosciutto. When we returned home, we were sad to have to let that practice go. Herb and Kathy, however, were far more imaginative than we are. They put all their efforts into learning the authentic Italian methods of curing prosciutto and turned this abiding passion into a thriving business over time.
After returning from Italy, the Eckhouses came back to Iowa. Herb was raised there. “Iowa has the most fertile earth in the world, along with the pampas in Argentina. We wanted to work with that earth.” When Herb talked about the fertile earth of Iowa, I nodded. One of the many details that struck us about Iowa was how black the earth was, under the burgeoning corn and soybean crops, even off the side of the highway. Everywhere, every plot of land, sighed out life. Why not use this land in a way that made sense to the Eckhouse's passion for good prosciutto?
This is La Quercia prosciutto. The color is darker than grocery-store prosciutto, like a burnished magony, infused with pink. The taste builds and lingers, with a complexity of taste far more nuanced than simply pork and salt. There's sweetness and clean air and darkness and earth. To us, this prosciutto tastes like the earth from where it started. (Well, without the dirt clods, of course.) Cured meats, it turns out, can have terroir as much as wine.
(If prosciutto were wine, most of the American prosciutto we have tasted is like 2-buck Chuck. La Quercia is that great bottle you save for a special evening, still affordable, but one you want to sip and savor.)
Herb and Kathy feel it's important to use pork that is pasture raised, anitbiotic and hormone free, from farms run by farmers they have come to know personally. (You can read more about the Eckhouses' ideas behind their business and the farms they use here.) Danny and I both noticed that Herb turned to Cathy Lee, our extraordinary guide from the Pork Board, and gently said, “You know, we don't like to use conventional pork.” There was civility there, a long-standing disagreement, humor, and kindness.
(La Quercia is not a member of the Pork Board because they do not raise the pigs. However, since LaQuercia is so widely respected and known within the food industry, by chefs and food writers and people who have influence over how people in this country eat, the Pork Board often takes guests and groups to La Quercia to show one of the ways pork can be made in this country.)
Danny and I both could have talked with Herb Eckhouse all day. I hope we have the chance to share food with him again somedy.
Still, eventually, it was time to don the hairnets and paper suits and walk through the factory with Herb.
(I think Danny still looks dashing, even with this get-up.)
These were hams in the first room of the factory. They had been recently salted and starting to cure.
Danny and I were both fascinated by the layout of the place. In this room and the next, the air was nippy, like a damp January day. One room had an artificial breeze, like a cold northern wind. As we moved through the rooms, and the curing process continues, the seasons shifted. Spring arrived with cool breezes.
By the time we reached the last holding room for the prosciutto, the air was warm and mild, which allowed the smell of the prosciutto (pork and salt and something ineffably good that made me want to run over to each leg and embrace it like a small child who has temporarily lost her mother in a crowd, then found her) to waft toward us.
We could have stood and stared in this room for a long time.
These women are wiping off the special coating that La Quercia puts on the pork to help turn it into prosciutto. (La Quercia has very loyal employees who stay for quite awhile. We could feel the practiced expertise in each room.)
Of course, I can't share exactly what the coating is (or tell you about the entire process). But I can say that Herb told us it involves corn flour. “We're in Iowa. Why not use corn?”
Hey, it's gluten-free.
I knew I liked this guy.
This is the last room in the factory. The packaging room.
La Quercia produces four kinds of proscuitto (Green Label prosciutto, which is organic, Rossa, Americano, and Picante). They also make a prosciutto crumble, which would be wonderful in pasta. In addition to prosciutto, La Quercia also makes speck, pancetta, coppa, guanciale, and lardo. We'll take one of everything, please.
Herb was kind enough to send us home with some prosciutto and guanciale. The day after we returned from Iowa, Danny sliced some of the prosciutto thin and lay a small plate draped with it on the table in front of us. Our daughter grabbed a slice and chewed thoughtfully, then reached for another, then another. We only had a slice or two that day. Lu enjoyed it for us.
Thankfully, La Quercia prosciutto and other cured meats are available at Whole Foods across the country. As soon as our stash runs out, we know where we're going.
Eat well. Live well. Be well.
That's a good motto. We love La Quercia.
400 Hakes Drive, Norwalk, IA 50211