High-brow bacon

by Joel Crews
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Flat pancetta
Producing dry-cured pancetta takes time...and money. (Photos: Adam Albright)

What Herb and Kathy Eckhouse know about bacon processing, they learned in Parma, Italy. But there are differences in the commodity bacon found at most US retailers and the dry-cured pork bellies of Italy – starting with the name.

In the late 1980s the entrepreneurial husband-and-wife spent almost four years in Italy, learning all they could about crafting dry-cured meats before founding La Quercia (pronounced “La-Kwair-cha”), an importer of premium prosciutto. Years later, in Des Moines, Iowa, the couple started processing prosciutto in the basement of their home. Then, in 2005, they started up a production plant to produce a variety of Italian-American dry-cured meats in Norwalk, Iowa. One of those hand-crafted, dry-cured premium products was Italian-style bacon. 

Kathy and Herb Eckhouse, owners, La Quercia
Kathy and Herb Eckhouse, La Quercia

“Over there it would be called ‘pancetta,’” says Herb Eckhouse, adding, “pancia means ‘belly’ in Italian.” Another difference from Italy’s style of bacon versus what is common in the US is that pancetta is typically eaten uncooked. “It’s cured for about three months and often you’ll find that it’s been aged for six months to a year.”

In Italy, pancetta is available in several variations, including: flat (“stesa” in Italian); rolled (“arrotolata”); and battened, which involves folding the belly and using narrow wooden boards secured with clamps to keep the belly flat (“steccata”).

While in Italy, Eckhouse recalls that while most bellies were in one of these dry-cured varieties, occasionally smoked bacon could be found. But most purists crave the uncooked, traditional style. He jokes that he and his wife can easily gauge the level of true meat lovers at any of La Quercia’s many tastings and demonstrations it holds, based on the attendees’ willingness to eat the uncooked but perfectly safe belly meat.

Logistically, the reason more processors don’t dabble in dry-cured bacon is not only the painstaking time it requires, but the inherent loss of yield.

“To make true, dry-cured bacon, you’re going to have pretty significant weight loss and that means the cost goes up,” Eckhouse says. Working with bellies that shrink by as much as 30 percent can create some sticker shock. “Sometimes that’s the hardest thing for a customer to relate to,” he adds.

But La Quercia has no plans to compete with the commodity bacons or get in the business of pumping and enhancing bellies.

“Everything we do is dry cured,” says Eckhouse, and none of the company’s products have or need cooking instructions. Customers shouldn’t expect that to change.

As part of the company’s eye for detail, the Eckhouses have learned the benefit of utilizing breeds of hogs that deliver the results La Quercia customers expect. Having experimented with the Tamworth breed, which are known for their bigger, long bellies and corresponding higher price, Eckhouse says many customers are turned on by the taste but turned off by the cost.

Rolled pancetta
La Quercia uses Duroc pork for its rolled pancetta.

“We were not successful in attracting the bacon hoards; it was just too much of a price jump,” says Eckhouse of the Tamworths. But it is the Tamworth bellies that La Quercia uses for its smoked pancetta, “which we used to sell as country-cured bacon, but now sell as smoked pancetta and it works a little better.”

To temper the costs, La Quercia uses Duroc pork for its rolled pancetta, due to its higher lean-to-fat ratio, which tends to be important to requested by foodservice customers and chefs, the company uses a Berkshire cross because of its rich, fat attributes.

Eckhouse says small, artisan operations like his are growing at a healthy clip, and he and Kathy have no plans to attempt to compete with the commodity bacon processors taking advantage of the skyrocketing popularity of traditional bacon. He jokingly calls the movement “baco-mania.”

With sales of pancetta growing in “the strong double digits” each year, the business plan for La Quercia is to stick to what it does well.

“We’re small and we’re inefficient because we do a lot of handwork,” he says. “We just can’t get into that fray.”

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