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Much love has gone the way of Iowa's La Quercia prosciutto, an outstanding product that really lives up to the hype. Jeffrey Steingarten notably declared it "the best prosciutto available in this country, imported or domestic," and you can judge for yourself at at least eight local boites, including Blackbird, Avec, Spiaggia, North Pond, and Trotter's. Or get some sliced for yourself at Whole Foods (though I had some trouble at the new Peterson and Cicero store--it's supposed to be sliced tissue-paper thin).
But for some time I've been meaning to give a shout out to a lesser known and lamentably rare La Quercia pork product. A few weeks ago a friend returned from the Norwalk, Iowa, prosciuttificio with several pounds of luscious, fatty guanciale, the dry cured jowl of the hog (thanks Joel). It's indispensable for a true spaghetti alla carbonara, or anything that calls for pancetta. If bacon makes everything better, guanciale makes it best.
According to Ruhlman's Charcuterie it's one of the easiest cuts to cure, but good luck finding it at the butcher shop. Kathy and Herb Eckhouse of La Quercia don't even list it on their Web site, though they've been trying mightily to offer a consistent supply. I was astonished when I found out why it's so difficult to produce.
"For one thing all the pork that we buy has to be from pigs [raised in] non confinement, antibiotic-free, vegetarian diet, humanely raised, so already that really narrows the pool that we can choose from," says Kathy. But it appears that the real problem is that, at the slaughterhouse, USDA inspectors routinely slash the jowls as the carcass comes down the line, searching for disease. That isn't the only way to inspect a pig, but that's the way its done unless they have a written cease and desist from the slaughterhouse. But even then the instructions are often ignored. "Part of it is that the message doesn't get all the way through to the line about what needs to be done," she says. "That's been a recurring issue when we've received jowls that are just really difficult for us to use, and we have to basically discard almost all of what we get."
But, say the jowls get through unslashed. The USDA also requires them to be certified free from trichina, a parasitic disease that comes from eating uncooked pork that's pretty (ahem) rare today. To get your pork certified, says Kathy, "You hold it in a freezer for a certain number of days at a certain temperature and it's in a cage and it's locked and there's a log kept of its time in there." That wouldn't be any trouble for a giant like Cargill to pull off if it wanted to order a hundred thousand pounds of hog jowls, but "we're more of an irritant than an opportunity because we're so small"
The issue of scale is an ongoing problem for artisanal producers everywhere; as Michael Pollan pointed out in the Omnivore's Dilemma, the USDA regulatory system is based on an industrial model created in response to the abuses Upton Sinclair chronicled in The Jungle. Adhering to its requirements can be prohibitively expensive. "The federal regulatory regime is expressly designed for a large slaughterhouse operated by unskilled and indifferent workers killing and cutting as many as four hundred feedlot animals an hour," writes Pollan. "The industrial packing plant where number 534 [a cow] met his end can take a steer from knocker to boxed beef for about fifty dollars a head; it would cost nearly ten times as much to process him in a custom facility like this."
The Eckhouses, by the way, lived and worked in Parma for over three years, and have a really cool operation--a computer assisted curing facility designed along Italian specs that mimics the changing seasons--the way pre-refrigeration hams were aged in the outdoors. La Quercia prosciutto ages in the plant for 10 to 12 months, but the guanciale only takes four to six weeks. Any longer says Herb Eckhouse, and it starts to go rancid. The Eckhouses are clearly frustrated with the pig jowl situation."Its been kind of one of those things where you feel like you're in a plastic bag and you can't punch your way out," says Herb, who's settled on a strategy of persistence, and hopes to have a steady supply by June.
When I first got mine, I let a thin slice of the guanciale melt on my tongue. It is so impossibly rich, so superbly porky that just a little bit goes a long way. Using Marcella's recipe, I made the carbonara of my life with La Quercia guanciale. I also sauteed some radicchio and rosemary with it, alla Mario's Simple Italian Food. The rest of my stash is vaccum sealed and frozen until I need the big guns, or until I can get a steady fix.