Bacon Unwrapped

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

La Quercia

Many of the smokehouses I've visited over the last couple weeks have received numerous awards and accolades over the years for their products. They truly are some of the best smokehouses in the country. I love hearing stories about how their businesses started and grew into the successful operations they are today. And the one thing they all seem to have in common is that they started small with the singular goal of providing a top quality product to the market, and they have stuck to that goal over the years regardless of how their business has grown.

La Quercia in Des Moines, Iowa is one such purveyor of cured meats following this philosophy. But their approach to cured meats is different than the country cure operations I've visited over the last couple weeks. La Quercia specializes in Italian cured meats in the form of prosciutto, pancetta, lardo, culaccia, speck and guanciale. But like the country smokehouses, La Quercia focuses on very simple curing concepts that have been around for hundreds of years with the goal of delivering the highest quality product to the market.

Owner Herb Eckhouse gave me a tour of their facility on a Friday afternoon. One of my favorite stories was about how they came up with the name of their business.

"La Quercia means the Oak in Italian. The Oak is a traditional symbol of the province of Parma (where we lived) and, through its acorns, has been associated with the history of prosciutto for 500 years. It is also the state tree of Iowa. The name unites Iowa, Parma, and prosciutto, and is a symbol of patience, persistence, integrity and beauty -- values which guide us."

La Quercia is a little over three years old. Their mission is to make artisinal salumi using traditional dry cure methods. They don't use any nitrates, nitrites or vegetable derived substances during their curing process. La Quercia is best known for their prosciutto, which I had the opportunity to sample and it was fantastic. But my main reason for visiting La Quercia was to learn more about their pancetta and guanciale.

Pancetta, like bacon, is made from pork belly. The main difference between American-style bacon and Italian-style pancetta is that pancetta isn't smoked. It is also cured longer and can be eaten uncooked, although many people like to cook with it, particularly in pasta sauces. La Quercia uses pork bellies from organic Berkshire hogs. The curing ingredients include sea salt and organic spices that give the meat a nice fragrance and flavor. La Quercia's pancetta is the first and only organic pancetta available in the United States.

Guanciale, which comes from the pig's jowl, is cured the same way the pancetta is cured. Guanciale is commonly used for cooking to flavor a dish - it's isn't as common to eat guanciale on its own.

In its short lifetime, La Quercia has received positive reviews from many well respected sources including Robert Parker and Ed Levine, and last year they were named Food Artisans of the Year by Bon Appetit Magazine. La Quercia products can also be found in numerous top restaurants around the country.

Click here to learn more about their products and to place an order.


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