Tell an Italian that you are going to create hams in Iowa equal to the famous prosciutto di Parma and they might fall to the floor laughing.
But after moving to Iowa from Italy, that's what Herb Eckhouse and his wife, Kathy, did with their La Quercia hams. And they did it very well, defying skeptics. After living in Parma, they understood the culture behind the meat. It's about salt, air, time -- and a lot of skill.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: Iowa prosciutto?
Kathy and Herb Eckhouse (Photo: La Quercia)
Herb Eckhouse: It's a head-turning line. It was always one of those things that caught people by surprise. Certainly people were skeptical, but once they tasted it, it was a ton of fun.
LRK: How did you go from corporate executive to maker of prosciutto?
HE: We had lived in Italy, and we had eaten a lot of prosciutto. We came back to Iowa and the idea came to us, "Well gosh, maybe we could make prosciutto here. After all, it only has two ingredients: pork and sea salt. There are more pigs than people in Iowa, so we've got the ingredients."
Then, as we were contemplating and planning, it really came to me that when we lived in Italy, our friends every day got up and expected that they were going to have an eating experience that was going to make them feel good to be alive.
This was something that we wanted to bring to people in the U.S. When you eat something delicious, you feel connected to creation and you feel happy to be alive. That really became our focus -- to show our appreciation for the bounty around us and make people feel good.
LRK: What does a great prosciutto taste like?
HE: I like to break it into three components: the foretaste, the middle taste and the aftertaste.
For me, a great prosciutto shouldn't be too salty. I don't want to get hit by salt when I put it in my mouth, I don't want to get hit by salt as the flavor builds, and I don't want to be left at the end with my tongue ridged because I've taken up so much salt. I really prefer sweet prosciutto or prosciutto that has the minimum amount of salt.
The other big flavor component in prosciutto is umami, which is that indescribable savory flavor that you get with aged foods like aged Parmigiano-Reggiano. It just has this very rich, nutty, somewhere-between-savory-and-sweet flavor. That's a key component.
Right now I would say my favorite prosciutto is our Tamworth prosciutto. It has that umami flavor in the foretaste, then in the midtaste it builds this really deep, sweet caramel flavor. That flavor carries through to the aftertaste and the finish.
Berkshire prosciutto (Photo: Adam Albright)
LRK: Tamworth is a breed of pig?
HE: It's considered a threatened breed in the U.S. I read something recently that Prince Charles, who is known as somebody who cares deeply about his food and had his own line of organic specialty food, actually raises Tamworth pigs. He sent some Tamworth legs to di Zibello in Italy to be cured into culatello.
LRK: Culatello is the paragon of cured pork leg, just a hint above prosciutto.
HE: I think it's rare. It's a very special cut. It's extremely perishable; that's why we don't make it. I feel it's too perishable to deliver a good eating experience to people in a country as big as this one.
LRK: What is the difference between the ham in the supermarket that we usually buy and prosciutto?
HE: The fundamental difference is ham that you buy in the supermarket is cooked.
There are three ways you can protect meat and make it safe to eat for a long period. One of the ways is to cook it. You kill the bacteria by heating them. One of them is to dry it. That's what we do with prosciutto. You take the water out and then the bacteria can't live. Then when you dry the meat, you can then age it and get that really rich, complex flavor and that transformation of texture.
LRK: How much time goes into drying it and curing it?
HE: For us it varies with the kind of meat we're using and the way we prepare it. It's a minimum of 9 months and a maximum of about 3 years.