Sunday, September 12, 2010

What's Breed Got To Do With It? La Quercia's Radical Take on Ham.

 At Becker Lane Farm in spring the piglets roam outside their huts.

Talk to Herb Eckhouse, the founder of La Quercia, and you might forget that he cures ham for a living. You’d be forgiven for confusing him for a winemaker since he uses a similar vocabulary. He calls pig breeds “varietals.” He refers to his standard cured ham as the “house blend.” And he describes ham aroma and flavors like he’s got his nose perched over a prize vintage, using words like “beguiling,” “fruity” and “perfumed.”

This may come off as frippery—until you taste the ham. Trust me, he's not being over the top. This is ham that deserves a rotund vocabulary. The similarities with wine are not just show. They illustrate something that La Quercia is doing that few others are: focusing on breed. Herb feels the breed of the hog is the main conributor to prosciutto flavor in the same way the variety of grape contributes to wine flavor.

This may seem obvious but it's certainly not standard wisdom in the cured meat world. While living in Italy in the early 1990s Herb visited prosciutto makers to learn what they did. He was regularly told that he would probably not be able to cure ham in Iowa because there was something special about Parma’s air. To them, that was a key factor. Breed was never mentioned. Being American and scientifically skeptical (a trait we share), he thought air might not be that important. But he kept his mouth shut.

Truth is, I hear this kind of thing all the time. You can’t make bagels outside New York because New York has special water. You can’t make bourbon outside Kentucky because Kentucky has a special climate AND special water. Far more often than not, in my opinion, these kinds of claims are more atmosphere than fact. Like with Herb’s hams, it’s the ingredients—in this case, the ham itself, the breed of pig—that influence the vast majority of the flavor. How much is the air affecting a four inch thick dense chunk of meat coated in salt? Probably not much. Herb cured his first ham in his living room. He told me it tasted delicious.
While nearly all Italian prosciutto makers and American ham curers use standard breed white pigs, La Quercia focuses on heirloom breed Berkshire and Berkshire cross hogs. Berkshire hogs have been bred for flavor. They are renowned for their distinctive “porkiness.” Standard breed white pigs haven’t exactly been bred for lack of flavor, but their flavor-enhancing characteristics have been downplayed to market pork as “the other white meat” and to encourage fast growth and consistent, large litters.

Berkshire hogs were rediscovered by chefs in America about ten years ago. Until then most were sent to Japan. (Sometimes it seems like you can build a successful food business by simply researching what we export to Japan and sell it back to Americans.) Today, Herb works with Paul Willis, Jude Becker and other Iowa farmers who raise heirloom pigs humanely, with outdoor access, common social area, and no sub-theraputic hormones. The cured ham we've just started carrying, exclusive to ZMO, is all from Jude Becker's farm, 100% organic, 100% Berkshire.

Italian and Spanish cured hams have long ruled the roost. That may change. After all, European wines had a nearly exclusive hold on greatness until thirty or forty years ago. In 1976 Californian wines went to Paris and famously won a blind tasting against some of France’s most prestigious vintners. There hasn’t been a comparable international ham tasting. But if there is and La Quercia is among the contestants, I woudn’t bet against the Americans.

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