The wife and husband team of Kathy and Herb Eckhouse, owners and founders of La Quercia, firmly believe that great food is more than taste and flavor. According to the Eckhouses, quality food should also be healthful, nutritious and a responsible solution that sustains the consumer, producers, craftspeople, restaurants and the environment. This food culture inspired the husband and wife duo to do something that hadn’t been done before in the U.S. La Quercia is a company dedicated to producing the finest handcrafted cured meats and in a sustainable, wholesome way.
Bringing Italy Home
Kathy says the couple adopted this mindset after spending three years living in the countryside of Parma, Italy; a region famous for its architecture and food, including cheese and prosciutto. “In Parma, we learned about the Italian way of eating that stems from sustainably sourced, delicious yet simple ingredients that are well prepared,” shares Kathy. “We were really impressed with the culture of food and agriculture and how the Italians used their resources. We fell in love with eating prosciutto and this different mindset.”
When the couple returned to Des Moines, Iowa, in 2000 they found it next to impossible to find the same high quality prosciutto in the states. “Although we have more pigs than people in Iowa, we couldn’t find the same product and we realized that cured meats hadn’t gone through the same transformation as wine, beer and cheese in the U.S.,” she elaborates.
Other American-made food products, such as wine and cheese, could stand up to the quality of European varieties, but not prosciutto. The couple saw this gap in the market and wanted to fill it with cured pork products for global resale.
“We started making prosciutto in our home, in our garage and basement, really wherever we had the space,” recalls Kathy. “We purchased humanely-raised and antibiotic-free pork, not commodity pork, and that’s still one of our cornerstones.”
Taking the Plunge
Kathy and Herb started traveling throughout the U.S., offering samples of their homemade prosciutto. “At first people doubted our ability to do it, but we quickly found the product was catching on,” says Kathy. “After getting our name out there a little we decided to take the plunge; it was a put-up-or-shut-up kind of point, and we went for it.”
The pair started the business in 2000. The duo then built and opened La Quercia’s production facility between 2004 and 2005 to create premium quality American prosciutto and apply their knowledge to other cuts of pork; the young company was positioned well in Iowa farm country to do so.
“In Italy, we saw how careful treatment of fine materials resulted in accessible and entirely regional cuisine,” explains Kathy. “Our desire came from this inspiration and wanting to take the bounty that surrounds us in Iowa to craft the American version.”
Kathy notes location does matter. “This is a rich agricultural area, but stripping the soil with commodity crops and meat doesn’t make anything special,” she continues. “We wanted to find a way to really celebrate what we have in this state.”
Today, La Quercia ships across the U.S. and Canada, as well as locally, from its facility in Norwalk, Iowa. The company has even begun its second phase of production expansion. “When we built this facility we designed it for three phases of expansion,” reveals Kathy. “We’re currently adding between 12,000 to 15,000 square feet of production area for added flexibility. We need the space, because some products take months and some take years to age.”
The Proof is in the Pork
Just as artisan wine depends on the quality and nature of the grapes, a delicious cut of cured meat relies on the aging process, but also the quality of the animal. La Quercia believes quality is directly related to how the animal is raised.
“We only use clean meat and only the whole muscle parts of the pig,” emphasizes Kathy. “We only buy humanely treated, farm-raised, antibiotic-free animals and we have direct relationships with the farmers.” The company’s relationships have paid off.
“Our heirloom varietal acorn-fed pork has been a huge hit,” continues Kathy. “We use all heirloom pigs for this project, now in its seventh year, with some of the legs being aged for up to 3.5 years. Some of the acorn edition pigs are purebred Bershires from Berkwood Farms. Others are Tamworth pigs, pasture-raised in the Missouri Ozarks and finished for four months in hickory oak woodland. These animals are raised in the woodlands of the Missouri Ozarks. It’s a really old, traditional method for raising pigs and the quality of the meat is amazing. It’s our seventh year working with these acorn-fed pigs.”
La Quercia works closely with fellow Iowa native, Berkwood Farms. “Our heirloom breed Berkshire pork is raised humanely by a network of sustainable family farms who share in the pride of ownership in Berkwood Farms,” says Nick Jones of Berkwood Farms.
The local farm is mindful of quality and the high expectations of its customers. “Our animals are never fed antibiotics or hormones,” adds Nick. “We care for our animals the way we care for our farms… with great pride and a strong feeling of accomplishment.”
La Quercia has been working with Berkwood for more than seven years. Each week, the Berkwood staff hand inspects each authentic Berkshire product before shipping. This guarantees the quality of each cut, consistency and above all, ensures delicious flavor every time.
Kathy reveals La Quercia’s goal is to add more pork varietals each year and continue to work hand-in-hand with the farmers that raise the animals. “I want people to experience how different the meat tastes, depending on the breed and how it was raised,” she says.
Above all else, it is evident that the Eckhouses love what they are doing. “It’s about living and telling an authentic story,” adds Kathy. “Our customers, whether it’s a restaurant or a single family, want to know where their meat comes from.” For 13 years, Kathy and Herb have continued to develop a unique American company linking Italy and Iowa; La Quercia will continue to deliver authentic cured meats in a responsible manner.