Consumers embrace artisanal Italian meat
By Kathleen Furore
La Quercia has grown into an award-winning enterprise in just a decade by focusing on quality ingredients. “With so few [ingredients], they make a big difference,” he says.
Products are salted, turned and trimmed in the company’s Norwalk aging facility, where both Herb and Kathy work on the floor as part of the salting crew. “We also hand work our meats—our prosciutto goes through 27 hand work steps before it is ready to package,” Eckhouse says. “When we began, people did not believe it was possible to produce high quality cured meats in the USA. We disproved that, and I think that has opened up the market. It used to be that at a food show, we would offer ‘Prosciutto from Iowa’ and people would say 'Where?' That doesn't happen anymore.”
Expanding the Market
“The world is getting a lot smaller. People are watching the Food Network and doing more European travel, so they’re not thinking of prosciutto as just ham,” says Paul Gillum, vice president of operations at Fresno, California-based Busseto Foods, makers of specialty meat products all based on centuries-old Italian recipes. “That is helping us tremendously!”
Herb Eckhouse, founder and owner of La Quercia in Nowalk, Iowa, concurs, “This segment has grown a lot.”
—Paul Gillum, vice president of operations at Fresno, California-based Busseto Foods
“The world is getting a lot smaller. People are watching the Food Network and doing more European travel, so they’re not thinking of prosciutto as just ham.”
Busseto and La Quercia share a passion for authenticity and quality that has helped drive the market for their domestically produced prosciutto and other artisanal meats. Even their company names reflect a dedication to the market they serve.
Busseto is a quaint village in Northern Italy steeped in old-world heritage. La Quercia means The Oak—a traditional symbol of the province of Parma that has been associated with the production of premium dry-cured ham for millennia.
Busseto’s history dates to 1981, when a German entrepreneur from Switzerland began producing artisanal meats in Fresno and marketed them primarily to gourmet distributors and gourmet retail outlets. The company was then known as Rapelli of California.
“He was trying to develop Italian-style products like prosciutto and pancetta here, but it started very slowly, so he sold the business to an Italian company,” says Lorenzo Pagani, who has been the company’s master meat maker for almost 24 years.
The new buyer, IBIS, SpA., of Busseto, Italy, expanded production facilities, and in 1991 hired current president Michael Grazier and brought Pagani from Italy to improve production. In 1997, the company changed its name and rebranded as Busseto Foods.
“We started to develop new systems—we were following the Italian way,” say Pagani, who this year celebrates his 60th anniversary in the artisanal meats industry. In 1955, he started his career with a salame company in Italy.
Italy also holds a place in La Quercia’s history.
When Eckhouse and his wife Kathy founded the company in 2005, they recognized an unmet demand for high quality, domestically produced artisanal products. Drawing on the appreciation of cured meats they had developed during the three-and-a-half years they lived in Parma, prosciutto’s area of origin, the couple began curing hams in the basement of their Des Moines home.
“We saw the evolution of smaller, artisanal producers in the cheese, beer, wine and chocolate categories. In all four, the highest quality niche had been dominated by foreign producers, yet smaller American producers, carefully selecting their ingredients, were able to compete effectively,” Eckhouse recalls. “Being in Iowa, we live with the amazing bounty and beauty of the American prairie, and we were inspired to address this opportunity with these resources.”
Farm outside of Parma, Italy
When the “happiest place on earth” spotlights its favorite charcuterie restaurants, you know prosciutto has gone from upscale specialty meat to an artisanal yet mainstream delicacy.
“Charcuterie, the fancy French term for preserved meats, is an age-old food preparation that’s popping up on lots of Walt Disney World Resort menus,” Pam Brandon, Disney Parks Food Writer, blogged in a January 30th entry titled Trend Spotting: Our Favorite Walt Disney World Resort Restaurants for Charcuterie. “The newest at Trattoria al Forno at Disney’s BoardWalk made us want to try them all.”
In addition to Trattoria al Forno’s breakfast fritatta with prosciutto and the cured Italian meat tray on the dinner menu, Disney’s prosciutto-packed offerings include charcuterie plates featured on the Beauty and the Feast dinner menu at Be Our Guest restaurant in The Beast’s Enchanted Castle, and at the Hollywood Brown Derby Lounge in Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
“The charcuterie and artisanal meat trends remain strong as consumers seek out a wider variety of meat products to serve at home and enjoy in restaurants,” says Eric Mittenthal, vice president of public affairs for the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council. “With so many options available, it allows for people to truly customize their meat eating experience by combining different meats, cheeses and other accompaniments together on one platter. The industry continues to expand its own product offerings to help meet the demand.”
Herb and Kathy Eckhouse, founders and owners of La Quercia in Nowalk, Iowa.
Spotlight on Prosciutto
Retail and foodservice businesses alike turn to Busseto Foods and La Quercia for the quality artisanal meats each company offers. Prosciutto remains a top seller for both companies.
“Our customers are restaurants and specialty food retailers that want to offer a great eating experience with carefully sourced ingredients,” Herb reports. “Prosciutto is our most popular product, partly because we make the most of it. It is our favorite cured meat.“
Busseto’s meats are chosen for leanness, freshness and quality, then slowly air-dried and cured using what the company describes as “time-honored Italian traditions."
The dry-cured prosciutto in the Deli Collection is a boneless, skinless, unsliced product made from select pork legs closely trimmed for maximum slicing yield. The company also offers a selection of pre-sliced products starring prosciutto.
The Prosciutto and Prosciutto Rubbed with Herbes de Provence sliced shingle packs come in three-ounce exact weight packs and seven-ounce random weight packs. The Antipasto Variety Pack includes thinly sliced prosciutto, along with Dry Coppa, Italian Dry Salami, and Black Pepper coated Italian Dry Salami. And the Institutional Line—designed for restaurants, chain accounts, caterers and schools—includes prosciutto that yields three slices per ounce, each ounce separated with wax paper.
La Quercia offers seven varieties of prosciutto products, all fully dry-cured and made with pork, raised humanely without sub-therapeutic antibiotics. The varieties are Prosciutto Americano, the company’s inaugural product and its most popular; Rossa Berkshire, made of 100 percent Berkshire pork; Tamworth Prosciutto, made from pasture raised, heritage breed Tamworth pork; Organic Prosciutto, (Green Label) made from pork from Iowa’s Becker Lane Organics; Speck Americano, made with real apple wood; Prosciutto Piccante, rubbed with freshly ground fennel and red pepper; and Acorn Berkshire Prosciutto, made from pigs who have feasted on acorns for the last three months of their lives. All products are available whole; the Americano and Piccante products also come in pre-sliced packs.
Relationships with manufacturing partners are instrumental in helping Busseto and La Quercia achieve optimum quality, appearance and flavor. When it comes to slicing equipment, cutting corners isn’t an option—especially with proscuitto, which must be sliced extremely thin.
In Italy, prosciutto is sliced using slowly run blades, often hand-operated. “That’s the key to correctly slicing prosciutto: if the blade runs too fast (and is not sharp enough), the resulting friction will heat the steel and consequently melt the prosciutto,” information according to livelikeanitalian.com.
“Slicing is very, very, very important!” Busseto’s Pagani stresses. “The quality [of the prosciutto] depends on slicing, and on the quality of the pigs, what they eat, their age, how they are killed. You get good results if all those things come together without cutting corners! There are little tricks that if you know them, they’ll solve the problems. The Weber slicers are wonderful machines, and the Weber people— give them a problem and they will tell you every trick to fix it!”
“It isn’t easy!” Eckhouse says of slicing prosciutto into razor-thin slices, which La Quercia recommends be 1/16” (1 mm) thick or less. “Eating the meat directly off of a hand crank, flywheel slicer is the best eating experience, but not very widely available. We slice thinly and control oxidation immediately by packaging, so that really helps the eating quality.“
That is where the quality and functionality of meat slicers comes into play. Both Busseto and La Quercia rely on Weber products.
Busseto employs Weber’s 602 and 604 slicers for slicing prosciutto, which Paul Gillum, vice president of operations, says must be less than 1 millimeter thick. “Those machines are designed to slice prosciutto that thin—they have four rotations to one slice,” Gillum says. “They are actually slicing very fast, but due to the Weber technology, they allow us to have quality slices and still attain the volume and efficiency needed to satisfy our consumers' demand.”
Weber’s 604 slicer also has an interleaving option that alternates paper with the prosciutto, Gillum says.
The Secret’s in the Slicing
“Weber has been great to us— they have been able to take their technology and apply it to the packages Busseto customers are asking for,” Gillum enthuses, noting customers want a high quality product that is easy to peel and eat while keeping the old world flavor and texture they desire from a quality prosciutto. The slicers’ ability to work with Busseto’s speed loader, also from Weber, is an important plus. “You put a piece of prosciutto on the speed loader's conveyer, it slices the meat, shingles it out, weighs it, and puts it into packages,” Gillum adds.
La Quercia, too, has been impressed with Weber’s slicing equipment and customer service. When the company bought a new 404 slicer in July 2014, Eckhouse says tech service employees “worked with us well beyond their minimum commitment until they were sure the new machine would operate without problems in our environment."
They also helped La Quercia’s line workers and supervisors understand why the machine’s enhanced computerized control were improvements over the previous slicer. “This helped us improve efficiency,” Eckhouse notes.
And it wasn’t just tech service employees who weighed in with assistance. When La Quercia asked Weber to review the original gripper and downholder recommendations, Norbert Muehlich, Weber’s vice president, stepped in.
“He got personally involved and identified several opportunities for improvement that together reduced the size of our slicing ends by half,” Eckhouse recalls. “Overall, the support in helping us get the full benefits of the change to the larger, more advanced new slicer were thorough and complete.”
With the popularity of prosciutto and other artisanal meats on the rise, the future for the category—and for companies involved in any aspect of specialty meat production—appears bright.
“This segment has grown a lot. I think we'll see large companies try to reposition some of their offerings and try to make them look artisanal,” Eckhouse concludes. “I think we'll see foreign producers want to take part; I think we'll see new entrants and I think some of the early entrants will continue to grow.“
Weber Slicer 404
Weber Slicer 604