Siouxland Observer

Master of Science

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Iowa Prosciutto

Pork is big business in Iowa.  According to the Iowa Pork Producers Association, 49 million hogs were raised here in 2012 (the most recent year for records).  To the farmers, families and workers who depend on these animals, hogs generate almost $950 million in household income, and contribute nearly $7.5 billion to the Iowa economy.

In Middle Iowa, an area that stretches along the Lincoln Highway from Smithland to Ames, pigs are everywhere.  And if Interstate Highway 80 to the south, and U.S. Highway 20 to the north, is included, all of western, middle Iowa is as void of humanity as the Lincoln Highway.  Pigs, corn and beans, oh my! With the exception of a convenience store called Casey’s and, of course, feedlots filled with cattle, Sparky’s One Stop is about the only other place to visit.

Of course, there is more to Iowa than farmsteads and convenience stores.  There are towns, but many in town (and especially those near the countryside) complain about odors and zoning.  But a farm is a farm, and most are out in the middle of nowhere.  A busy rail line runs past many, mostly around the Lincoln Highway (U.S. Highway 30).

As the rail line, and the highway, winds toward Ames, farmland gives way to suburbs, and Wheatsfield Cooperative replaces the fast food of the gas stations.  It's healthier, for sure, and especially when compared to genetically modified, corn-fed meat.  

This is not to "dis" the Iowa Pork Producers Association. or any Iowa producer of food.  Tasty, inexpensive and plentiful pork makes America...well, America.

But not all Iowa farmers raise their animals in confinement, or feed them GMOs.  A couple who sell their wares locally, and around the world, have a different view, and when it comes to pork are making news.

rosciutto (pronounced pro SHOO-toe) has made a slow appearance in Iowa, at least the good stuff.  Like The New York Times, it's an odd fit.  But not in Ames, Iowa.  Ames sells some of the best prosciutto in America, and, of course, The New York Times is found at several locations around town.

On a Wednesday August 7, 2013, a visitor to Ames, for example, picked up The Times, and was surprised to find a story about Herb and Kathy Eckhouse.  They live in Norwalk, Iowa, south of Des Moines, and raise Iowa pork.  According to The Times their farm makes some of the best prosciutto in America.

Prosciutto is Italian by trade, and usually has a protected designation of origin (PDO), just like the wine of Burgundy, and other areas of France.  Prosciutto is not an America staple, of course, and according to a reference on Wikipedia, the farmers who make Italian prosciutto take the protection of designation very seriously.  Each prosciutto's PDO is slightly different in color, flavor and texture.  "Brands" include a Prosciutto di Parma, Italy, PDO, Prosciutto Toscano, Italy, PDO, and many others, each with their own designation.
According to The New York Times, Herb and Kathy wanted the same thing: a designation-quality prosciutto.  For example, using an Italian-like designation, their prosciutto could be called Prosciutto Norwalk, Americano, PDO.  And it is that good.  A grocery clerk at Wheatsfield, when told that La Quercia Prosciutto Americano (the Norwalk brand name) is considered one of the best in America, was not at all surprised:

“I believe it,”  he said ringing up a sale.  “They've actually sampled here."

Yes, without question, a world-class prosciutto is found on a sampling table at a grocery store in the bowels of middle America.  

When asked how to eat prosciutto, the worker replied in his upbeat, "Good sir," and recommended eggs in the morning, or wrapped around asparagus.  It can be eaten raw or cooked.  

Restaurateur, Paul Kahan (interviewed in Jane Fritsch’s New York Times prosciutto article), said he served it with homemade bread and a local goat butter at his Publican Restaurant in Chicago.  La Quercia (pronounced la KWAIR-cha) is also served at many of the finest restaurants in New York, and in the Bay Area.  It is also available at select Whole Foods Markets, Costco stores and, of course, Wheatfields in Ames, Iowa.

The history of this food is fascinating.  The hind leg is cured with salt and lots of time, nothing else.  If the pork is naturally fed, humanely butchered and cured the old-fashioned way (as La Quercia makes it), the cure follows the cycle of the seasons.  Because of this, the flavor of the pork is naturally enhanced.  Nothing else is needed.

According to Foods For Thought, the history of raw prosciutto (Prosciutto Crudo) dates back to at least 100 BC in Parma Italy, when peasants hung hams to cure in the attic or cellar.  Interestingly, the Italian PDO designations regulate the production areas, breed and diet of pigs, length of cure, and curing process. The website said prosciutto refers to the cut, not to processes afterward.  Prosciutto Crudo, for example, refers to the hind leg of a pig, rubbed in salt and cured (air dried) a minimum of one year. True prosciutto crudo contains 4 ingredients: leg of pig, salt, air, and time. 

Foods for Thought also ranks La Quercia Prosciutto as the best prosciutto made in the United States.  The couple insists on humane and healthy practices.  Their hogs roam free and are naturally fed, often in forested hillsides littered with acorns, hence the La Quercia brand, which means oak, a reference to the oak savannas where the animals traditionally fed.
And they live well, until fall harvest and bills are due.  Suggested dining includes lightly seasoned scrambled eggs, cheese (or cream drizzled over fresh fruit), warm sourdough with goat butter and La Quercia Prosciutto Americano (lightly cooked or raw).

Bon Appétit....