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Parma by way of Iowa

They're starting with Berkshire pork and creating outstanding prosciutto -- and it doesn't end there.

July 04, 2007|Amy Scattergood | Times Staff Writer

Norwalk, Iowa — THE thin, translucent slices of ham have a rich, mahogany color, a satiny texture and a complex, sweet earthiness that doesn't so much hit your palate as envelope it. The flavor is rich yet surprisingly subtle, with a low-register gaminess that wants for nothing more than a nob of bread and a pour of wine to accompany it.

Which is mostly the way La Quercia Rossa prosciutto is served, on charcuterie plates at the few Los Angeles restaurants where you can find it: On Mozzarella Monday at Jar in Los Angeles, at Ford's Filling Station in Culver City and at the recently opened All' Angelo on Melrose. Mirko Paderno, All' Angelo's Italian-born chef, serves La Quercia Rossa simply, on a wooden board with grilled bread, a few sun-dried tomatoes and marinated baby artichokes. "This is the closest thing to true culatello I can get," Paderno says, referring to a prized Italian ham similar to prosciutto, a select cut that's soaked in wine before it's cured and has a sweet, almost languid taste.

But La Quercia Rossa isn't a new import from Parma, nor is it one of the celebrated jamon ibericos recently cleared for import from Spain. It's an American ham made from Berkshire (also known as Kurobuta) pork.

For the last year, Herb and Kathy Eckhouse and their tiny team -- none of whom is Italian -- have been making this handcrafted prosciutto in Norwalk, Iowa, in the middle of a windblown and distinctly American landscape of corn and soybeans.

That the Eckhouses have succeeded in making what is arguably the best prosciutto this side of Parma in a nondescript building in the American Midwest is a remarkable achievement. Prosciutto di Parma, the famed dry-aged Italian ham, has a mystique born of tradition and provenance and mysterious chemistry. Historically, it was made in the foothills of the Apennines from roaming pigs that fed on fallen acorns. Cured in sea salt, the hams hung in local basements, the complex flavors encouraged by the circulating Italian winds, for the long altering months -- a year, a year and a half, even more. Making proscuitto was -- and is -- considered an epic art form.

Yet La Quercia Rossa is made continents away from any Italian farmhouse, from an heirloom British-origin breed of American-raised pigs usually known by their Japanese name -- and it's ready for market in a year's time or less. It's not the only cured meat La Quercia produces. It also makes outstanding pancetta, a lovely speck (smoked ham) redolent of apple wood, guanciale (cured pork jowls) and an American prosciutto made from mixed breed pigs. When sources are available, many of these products are made from organic pork.

There's been a recent groundswell of expert handcrafting of Italian-style cured meats, or salumi, here in the U.S. Paul Bertolli's Berkeley-based Fra' Mani and Armandino Batali's Salumi, in Seattle, both turn out phenomenal domestic charcuterie.

Like Batali, a former Boeing exec, and Bertolli, previously longtime chef at Berkeley's Chez Panisse, the Eckhouses came to prosciutto in midlife. After almost 20 years as a seed company executive in Des Moines, three and a half of which were spent (with his wife, Kathy and their children) in Parma, Italy, as president of the company's Italian subsidiary, Herb quit corporate America in 2000. Shortly thereafter, he and Kathy, now in their late 50s, began curing ham in their suburban Des Moines basement.

Living in Parma, they'd fallen in love with the region's famed salumi. Eckhouse locates one epiphanic moment to a dinner he had with a friend at a restaurant that served particularly sublime prosciutto. After a meal that included two plates of it -- and two flasks of Lambrusco -- Herb starting thinking about all those pigs back in Iowa in a radically different light. And he wanted to turn them into prosciutto.

The fact that he'd never made ham before, or that he wasn't Italian (Herb, who was born in Iowa and grew up in Chicago, describes himself as a "Harvard-educated Jewish liberal," while Kathy grew up in Berkeley) didn't faze him. The American tradition of reinvention, says Herb, smiling at the many implicit ironies, "can be liberating." So he befriended a few of Parma's artisan prosciutto makers.

Italy revisited

SETTLED back in the U.S., in their Des Moines basement, the Eckhouses experimented with techniques learned from those artisans. While the hams aged -- watched over by the couple's three then-preteen and teenage children and their fascinated cat -- Kathy read literature on salumi-making, and Herb periodically returned to Europe to continue his research. He revisited Parma and traveled to Langhirano, the town in the province of Parma known for its prosciutto.

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