NOTE: I the good fortune to spend a few days (August 25 – 27) in Des Moines, Iowa attending the 13th Annual Niman Ranch Hog Farmer Appreciation Dinner. The weekend included a variety of activities including a panel discussion on sustainable farming, a tour of the Willis Dream Farm in Thornton, Iowa, a trip to the famous Des Moines Farmers Market and fabulous 8 course meal prepared by a group of great chef’s from around the country.
The weekend was educational the thought-provoking. Over the next couple of days I’ll be publishing a series of posts highlighting the weekend. My plan is to end the series with a serious post about what I learned about hog farming along with a call to action for my readers.
Niman Ranch Weekend (Part 1): La Quercia
Since most participants were not scheduled to arrive until later Friday morning, a few of us that arrived late the night before met for breakfast. We had a fantastic breakfast and with the prospect of spending a quiet morning in my hotel room I jumped at the chance to tour one of the most famous charcuteries in the United States, La Quercia.
La Quercia (The Oak) was started by Herb and Kathy Eckhouse in Norwalk, Iowa in 2002 and since their humble beginning in the basement of their home they have become one of the most respected charcuteries in the United States, if not the world. Jeffery Steingarten said their’s was the best prosciutto found in the US… domestic or imported. And after getting the chance to tour their facility and spend some time talking with Herb and Kathy it’s no wonder they have found such wonderful success on the plains of Iowa. (Learn more about Herb, Kathy and La Quercia here.)
Above you will see Coppa Americana getting ready for the drying stage of the curing process. At this point the loin from above the hog’s shoulder has already been cured with sea salt (and no nitrates). Traditionally Coppa is made with a garlic and pepper seasoning but La Quercia has made this “American” version with smoked pimenton and little organic cocoa.
As Herb walked us through the facility it was clear he and Kathy, and all their workers, had a passion for what they were doing. The attention to detail was incredible. Everything was done with a meticulousness that is not clear in mass-produced food stuffs. This was, indeed, food for eating…not just food for selling.
As I walked among the 30,000 or so dry cured hams hanging in different rooms in the various stages of the process I couldn’t help but feel as though, instead of meat plant, I was walking through an art museum. If ever there was an example of food as art it was at La Quercia.
As some of my earlier readers will remember I once tried my hand at curing pancetta. After spending some time at La Quercia I’m inspired to try it again. This is what artisian meat products is all about.
There is a reason Herb and Kathy Eckhouse has had the praises of food critics/journalists heaped upon them, including the Bon Appetit 2007 Food Artisans of the Year Award. Their respect for the finished product starts with a deep seeded respect for the farmers and the animals they raise. Their mission statement sums it up:
“We believe that the food we eat can delight us each day. It is our mission to help you make that happen. With each product we strive to offer a memorable eating experience. Seeking out the best possible ingredients, produced responsibly, we craft them by hand into something that expresses our appreciation for the bounty and beauty of Iowa.”–Herb & Kathy Eckhouse
Here are a few more pictures from my trip to La Quercia