Issue No. 22: Tamworth Acorn Edition Prosciutto

Herb Eckhouse’s prosciutto is inspired by the time he spent living in Parma, Italy. A few years back, though, Herb turned his attention to Spain. Acorn-fed pork is an old tradition in Spain, where Jamón Ibérico de Bellota is renowned as one of the country’s culinary crown jewels. The acorn-heavy diet has an incredible effect on the fat of the ham. It literally melts in your mouth.

When Herb set about making acorn hams at his pork palace, La Quercia, the first acorns were trucked in to feed the hogs. Later he met Russ Kremer, a pig farmer in Missouri whose pigs forage acorns for themselves among 120 acres of woodlands.

Russ Kremer’s pigs live in the woodlands from farrow to finish.

They have access to shelter from harsh weather, but they spend their lives coming and going as they please in the pasture and woods. They root around for nuts, foliage, and grubs; they sunbathe; they roll and wallow in muddy puddles. Russ raises his old breed red Tamworth hogs like farmers did a century ago, but it is fundamentally different than how most pigs are raised today. Today’s industry standard is a lean white pig in a CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) which is basically a factory where corn and antibiotics are put in one end and pork and poop come out the other. Animals are tightly confined in cages and live in their own excrement. I suppose the saving grace, if you want to call it that, is that their lives are short—often less than six months—as they’re fattened for market as quickly as possible.

Russ raises his acorn-fed pigs in exactly the same conditions as the rest of his hogs; they just happen to live the last few months of their lives in the fall, when the ground is trotter-deep in acorns. His woods are also full of other other nut trees like hickory and walnut, and the pigs eat those nuts, too. The acorns are their favorite, though. They’ll gobble up as many as they can—acorns can be up to half their diet any given day.

Herb uses the processes he learned in Parma, Italy to make prosciutto in Norwalk, Iowa.

When raw hams first arrive at La Quercia, they’re trimmed and salted. One of the things that surprised me was seeing how little salt is used. Rather than drowning the ham in a huge bin of salt, a few handfuls are placed in strategic spots on the surface of the meat, leaving other areas of meat totally exposed to air. The salt only stays on for a couple of weeks before it’s rinsed off and the hams are hung to dry. The result is prosciutto that is considerably less salty than other American salt-cured hams, like Broadbent’s from Kentucky or from Benton’s from Tennessee.

Back before refrigeration, when salt-curing was a necessary way to preserve meat for the year to come rather than a culinary preference, the curing timeline followed the seasons. Pigs were slaughtered in the late fall, and winter’s cooler weather helped to keep the meat from spoiling as it cured. By spring the meat was safe to withstand the warmer temperatures and the consequent increased enzyme activity, the process that gives the ham a lot more flavor. At La Quercia, as in Parma, hams follow a similar curing pattern today except they use a thermostat instead of relying on Mother Nature. The hams start in very cold “winter” rooms, and later move to warmer “spring” and “summer” rooms over the course of their curing. It’s a slow process requiring at least a year. Longer curing typically means bigger flavor, so the acorn edition hams always get at least two years of curing. The Tamworth Acorn Edition hams we have now were started in late 2011, making them nearly three years old—and incredibly flavorful.

Eating Tamworth Acorn Edition ham is a once-in-a-lifetime occasion.

This is the meat equivalent of a premier cru Bordeaux. The whole leg makes a stunning centerpiece, more impressive than any bottle of wine—and it’ll last longer, too. I like to savor it on its own, sliced thin. If you did want to pair it with other foods, go with ones that are likewise incredibly flavorful: a hunk of well-aged Parmigiano-Reggiano would do the trick.

While I was at La Quercia for a visit this fall there was a ham tasting in New York City that featured eleven different fantastic cured hams from around the world, including Spanish Ibérico de Bellota, Italian Prosciutto di Parma, and La Quercia’s Acorn Edition Tamworth. Herb got a text that evening with a photo of the event. It showed platter after platter filled with ham—and one platter that was empty. The empty platter, the one with ham that the judges couldn’t stop eating, was La Quercia’s Acorn Edition Tamworth.

Buying a whole ham is a commitment. It’s a lot of meat… a lot of very expensive meat. It’s one of the most expensive foods we’ve ever sold. But brand new this month, there’s an alternative. La Quercia has made a version of their very popular Borsellino salami using acorn meat. (Not to give myself undue credit, but the salami was made on the day I visited La Quercia and I helped to measure out the spices, so you could say that I actually made the acorn Borsellino salamis. You’re welcome!) The acorn salami is a bit softer and sweeter than the regular Borsellino salami. Herb calls it “the best we’ve ever made!” It’s special stuff, and it’s a great way to try the acorn edition pork without taking out a second mortgage.