Back in Iowa, Herb Eckhouse quit his job and began importing prosciutto.

He started importing the cured meats from Europe to resell with the hope of learning the nuances of the American high-end meat market and producing his own. Importing gave Eckhouse access to Italian prosciutto plants. He was, after all, a collaborator rather than a possible American-market competitor.

Because he took early retirement from Pioneer, he had the time to travel and perfect his craft.

He also enrolled in a meat-science course at Iowa State University. It just so happened that Paul Bertoli, the former chef at Chez Panisse, was attending the same class. Bertoli, revered in his own right for his ability to cure pork, was setting up a shop in Berkeley to make handcrafted sausages and other salumi.

The two men stood out from the rest of the group. Bertoli and Eckhouse were planning companies that returned to traditional charcuterie techniques. Their classmates were mostly employees of large meat processors learning what could be done to make pepperoni more quickly on an assembly line.

After regular trips to Italy, 14 home-cured experimental hams and thumbs up from members of the American culinary brain trust, the Eckhouses broke ground on their prosciutto plant four summers ago. The plant was built and ready to operate after nine months.

It also takes nine months for one of Eckhouse’s hams to be ready for market. And if you follow the path of one of those hams through the plant — but in just 15 minutes — the experience is like moving through the seasons in rapid succession. First is the cool, wintery environment where the fresh meat goes after it arrives and is boned, salted and laid on racks every Friday.  As the pieces lose moisture, they are hung by the shank end and slowly cycled through a series of coolers, each slightly warmer than the last as if coming on the winter thaw.

Then comes spring, where the pieces are covered with sugna, a mixture of lard, flour and spices. While most of the meat is still wrapped in flesh, coating the exposed meat slows moisture loss and seals out mold.

Finally the hams hang in the summer zone, a vast room that contains thousands of hams and where the air is balmy, smelling subtly musty and earthy. By the time the process has finished, the meat has lost about half its weight.

This long maturation made it a difficult transition from curing half a dozen hams every six months to 500 every week. The length of the curing cycle meant that La Quercia would process about 19,500 more hams before the quality of the first could be assessed.

The Eckhouses’ success with a small variety of cured meats has allowed them to experiment with other cuts such as dry sausages and bone-in hams. These experiments hang throughout the plant in different stages of production. But Eckhouse doesn’t want to expand the company’s offerings wildly.

“We’re only going to do things we like to eat,” Eckhouse said. “That’s one of our rules.”