Traditionally, pigs slaughtered in the fall become the hams that are hung through the winter, spring and summer. To become the best prosciutto they can, the hams depend on the cooperation of the Italian weather.
“But every week, the best prosciutto year starts in our building,” says owner Herb Eckhouse. Every Friday at La Quercia, 500 hams begin the journey that will last nine months. After trimming and salting, the hams go through a series of heated and cooled rooms, each set to simulate a different season.
The first is winter. It is cool and dry. The hams are still raw and plump. Then comes spring, more moisture and warmer temperatures. The salt has worked its way into the muscle and drawn out water. The air carries begins to carry an earthy sweetness. Then comes summer.
Summer is the largest room with dozens of rows of racks on each side, each representing week in the prosciutto’s life. It is warm and musty.
“It’s still exciting to me. I’m still tuned in,” Eckhouse says. “My reaction is ‘Oh my god, are we gonna get all these things sold?’ But I don’t worry as much as I used to.”
Indeed, things are looking good for the Norwalk, Iowa, prosciutto makers. Eckhouse and his wife Kathy have garnered attention from the national press. Whole Foods sells their cured meats nationally. Paul Bertolli, Alice Waters and Mario Batali have said glowing things about their products. Bon Appétit recently named them Food Artisans of the Year.
Even with the heaps of praise, Eckhouse admits they’ve yet to be as celebrated in their home state. So did they return to Iowa to do this?
Eckhouse, an Iowa native, smiled. “It’s where the pigs are.”