Hog wild over acorn-fed pork

The Des Moines Register


December 19, 2007

Some of the most celebrated pork in the world comes from free-roaming pigs that feast on acorns in Spain.
Tom Perry

Prized for its sweet, nutty and delicate taste and succulence, cured ham from these rock-star pigs became available this month for the first time in the United States.

The price for this ham, known as Jamón Ibérico, starts at about $50 per pound. All 300 of the hams in the first shipment were spoken for, having been preordered in 2002, according to online retailer Tienda.com.

As the legendary Spanish ham was making its U.S. debut, La Quercia LLC, a Norwalk-based artisan pork processor, began curing meat from 49 of what are believed to be the first acorn-fed, pasture-raised hogs in Iowa - if not the United States - that were part of an extensive commercial venture.

Acorns are a natural swine food that has been removed from pig diets, especially in the United States, because there are more efficient ways to feed pig herds.

"In Europe, they've been feeding acorns to pigs for centuries,'' said Herb Eckhouse, co-owner of La Quercia with his wife, Kathy. He added that it is generally agreed that acorn-fed pigs produce a sweeter and richer-tasting pork.

La Quercia's Acorn Edition pork, as it is being called, has already attracted the attention and financial support of some of the nation's finest chefs. If all goes according to plan, the Iowa-made product will be the American cousin of Jamón Ibérico.

Last week, a prominent California chef and two food industry executives traveled to Iowa just to catch a glimpse of the Acorn Edition pork and the operation at La Quercia. One of the executives, Carlos Souffront, of Zingerman's, a highly regarded Michigan food emporium, said matter-of-factly: "This is food history in the making.''

If that seems like a bit of a stretch, consider this: The Eckhouses found 48 partners, most of them from East and West coast restaurants, to join the Acorn Edition project. Each of those partners invested $3,000 per hog to take the risk in Iowa.

The list of subscribers to the La Quercia project features "Molto'' Mario Batali of Food Network fame and a roster of award-winning chefs from New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

In Des Moines, George Formaro of Centro and Gateway Market and Michael LaValle of the Embassy Club were subscribers.

"You look at the list of people and see the company you're keeping, and you go, 'Wow,' " said Formaro. "You've got guys like Mario Batali. At his level, those guys don't mess around. They didn't put up $3,000 because they wanted to be nice."

The Eckhouses were able to find willing partners for their Acorn Edition project because for the past two years their Iowa-made pork specialties have been judged worthy domestic rivals of the finest European imports, Formaro said.

Chris Blobaum, an Iowa native and chef at the Wilshire in Santa Monica, Calif., visited Norwalk last week to spend time at La Quercia. A regular buyer of La Quercia products, Blobaum said he's excited about the Acorn Edition project. He said he knows of farmers in California who have raised five or six acorn-fed pigs for friends or for their own use. "But I don't know of anyone who has ever tried something to this extent," he said, referring to the Acorn Edition project.

Customers at his restaurant, where the cost of an entree is in the range of $29 to $39, will enthusiastically support high-quality local and domestic food products, he said.

"You're seeing it with cheese being made here in the United States," he said. "It's similar to what happened with wine years ago."

It is no longer unusual for his customers to pay $125 or more for California wines from very small wineries, said Blobaum.

Along with chefs, U.S. food writers have discovered La Quercia. The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle and Vogue magazine have all rhapsodized about the quality of La Quercia's prosciutto. In October, Bon Appetit magazine named the processor its Food Artisan of the Year.

Formaro, a devotee of Italian prosciutto and one of La Quercia's first customers, said he considers the rave reviews an affirmation of his view that "here's a guy in Iowa who's making some of the best prosciutto in the world.'' The Acorn Edition prosciutto will be ready to evaluate in about a year, Herb Eckhouse said. But he's encouraged by the fresh Acorn Edition pork he tasted last week.

"A lot went into this project," Eckhouse said.

La Quercia turned to a farmer in northeast Iowa for its hogs. Becker Lane Organic Farm in Dyersville raised the Berkshires, a prized breed, for the project.

After the pigs were weaned, they were introduced to an acorn diet.

The chefs who subscribed to the Acorn Edition will receive the pork from their pigs in the Old World way, which translates into an "18-month culinary experience," Eckhouse said. Some fresh pork has already been sent out. But cured specialities, such as prosciutto and pancetta, will be dispatched after they've aged properly.
Because subscribers will receive their products over the course of months, it is unlikely that La Quercia Acorn Edition pork will show up as regular menu items. Most restaurants are likely to use the pork as a part of special events, Formaro said.

"One good thing about this is that it is going to be like the old days.... Nothing will be wasted," he said, explaining that most chefs are likely to use every scrap of meat from their pigs, since the cost averages out to about $30 per pound for the pork.

The true test of La Quercia's Acorn Edition pork will come near the end of 2008 when the prosciutto is ready, Eckhouse said.

"If it isn't really great," he said. "We probably won't do it again."

Reporter Tom Perry can be reached at (515) 284-8224 or tperry@dmreg.com

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