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Locavore: Fine Swine – Iowa’s Specialty Pork is Finding Foodie Fame

Fine Swine

Iowa's Specialty Pork is Finding Foodie Fame

story by Bryce T. Bauer

Masses of intricately strung crystals scatter the light from a profusion of electric candlesticks, casting the subdued yellow-orange glow of incandescents on dim. From each chandelier — dozens overhead — a four-figure price tag dangles. Outside, heavy traffic on Broadway pushes toward downtown Manhattan, but neither I nor my dining companion can hear even the angriest taxicab honk over the dining-room din of Pipa, a Spanish tapas restaurant that is by day a ritzy home furnishings store. It’s a setting endemic to New York City: part unapologetic ostentation, part practical utilization of high-priced real estate. It’s also the place where this Iowa boy discovered home-state culinary celebrity.

As my friend and I scan the menu, we begin debating our selections. Garlic-sautéed Ecuadorian shrimp? How about sautéed octopus with paprika and black olives? No, wait! Almond-stuffed, bacon-wrapped dates!

There, amid the charcuterie, I do a double take. The small print below the stylish descriptions catches me by surprise. “Norwalk, Iowa.” Apparently my home state is now sending not just caucus-endorsed candidates and ethanol to the coasts but artisanal pork as well.

The product that grabbed my attention is a prosciutto from La Quercia. Prosciutto from Iowa? Certainly none of the German and Danish farmers in western Iowa, where I grew up, salted and dry-cured pork hocks for the many months required to make the product. After tasting a few pieces, I am again surprised — who knew anyone outside of Italy could produce this delicacy?

I’m not alone. La Quercia (pronounced La KWAIR-cha, meaning“oak” in Italian) has been praised by celebrity chef Mario Batali, listed by O, The Oprah Magazine as one of the reasons Iowa is “getting better,” and highlighted by some of the premier of the foodie press. The prosciutto, however, is not the only famous Iowa pork. And maybe not even the most innovative.

Out on a generations-old family farm in Dyersville, Jude Becker of Becker Lane Organic Farm has taken old-world pork traditions to an even more rarified level. There were other American prosciutto makers before La Quercia, but as far as Becker knows he was the first farmer in this country to ever market pigs fed a diet that consists significantly of acorns. “The tradition of acorn-fed pork goes back millennia,” explains Becker. The oak nut was a diet staple because the pigs roamed and rooted about for acorns in the forests of Italy and Spain. An acorn diet is today best known as what makes the prized and pricey Jamón Ibérico of Spain so succulent.

Becker discovered some obstacles that his historical European counterparts did not face. “The modern-day challenge of getting pigs access to acorns is harder,” he says. “Feeding acorns is very, very expensive compared to corn.”

Access and cost — Becker must hire people to collect wild acorns for him — led Becker to take a hiatus from the practice last year. (Acorn-fed pork already in production will, however, be available as La Quercia’s 2011–2012 Acorn Edition line of specialty meats.) Becker says that he is trying to form a partnership with some area forest owners to allow his pigs to roam on their land. “I think the better thing to do would be to bring the pigs to the forests.” That is, of course, how it is done in Europe, where it is ensconced in the concept of pannage, literally the practice — and sometimes legal right — of sending domesticated pigs out to forage in forests.

Even without the acorn diet, Becker’s swine operation is atypical. As the name of his farm indicates, his pork is organic. He’s able to grow about half his needed grain feed on his own farm. And the way he raises his pigs, as well as the pigs themselves, is different.

In a rejection of industrial agriculture, as well as a quest for quality, he uses swine breeds — primarily Chester White — that fell out of favor decades ago. He allows these pigs to roam and forage on pasture. The result, he says, is a superior product, with the tell being the quality of the fat, its whiteness.

The Publican in Chicago has worked with Becker Lane since the restaurant — a sister establishment of the critically acclaimed Blackbird — opened three years ago. Chef Brian Huston discovered Becker Lane’s products through La Quercia and now uses its pork in a number of different dishes, including the restaurant’s popular sausages. “It is really second to none,” says Huston, noting a superior combination of flavor and fat that is richer, less gamey, and has a nice sweetness. That quality comes at a higher price. “If I could afford to use only his pork, I would. You get what you pay for.”

And diners are paying. The shift in the market is noteworthy, with many more Iowa producers offering artisan pork today that weren’t around four or five years ago, says Matt Steigerwald, a semifinalist in the 2011 James Beard Foundation Awards for the title of Midwest Best Chef. “The fact that you go into a nice restaurant around the country and it will list Iowa hogs and Iowa pork is pretty neat,” he says. “If you go to New York or D.C. or really anywhere now, if it is a restaurant of respect, the menu often says Iowa-raised pork. And that is a really good thing.”

Steigerwald has purchased pigs from Iowa farmers like Becker for years, turning them into all kinds of cured meats, such as salami, prosciutto, and copa, for the Lincoln Cafe in Mount Vernon. Pork raised in more common intensive agriculture systems, he says, is “built the way vegetables are built now — basically for transportation.” He prefers to craft dishes for his restaurant using pork that is redder, more marbled, and more flavorful. Enter Carl Blake.

Spurred by his disappointment with the quality of modern-day, confinement-raised pork, Blake left his career as a computer engineer to return to the farm life he knew from boyhood, founding Rustik Rooster Farms in Readlyn. With the goal of raising succulent pork, he researched various breeds and discovered the Swabian Hall — a crossbreed of Chinese Meishan hogs with wild Russian boars first developed in the early 1800s by Germany’s King Wilhelm I. “Swabian Hall in Germany came about because the traditional pig was too lean, like today’s hog,” says Blake.

Impressed that the breed had won multiple World’s Fair prizes, Blake decided to re-create Swabian Hall in the United States using Meishan stock that had been preserved — much to his relief — by Iowa State University.

He christened the result Iowa Swabian Hall, and, like its European counterpart, it has won numerous prizes, most recently at this year’s 10-city culinary competition known as Cochon 555. “The meat is much darker and the fat is absolutely pure white,” says Blake, describing cubes of roasted fat that can, and have, been eaten like candy. “When you cook the pork in the fat, it is the most tender pork you’ve ever had. It’s like eating Wagyu beef.”

Gastronomic exceptionalism, says Becker, is a product of not only niche husbandry but also apt geography. “Parts of France have grapes; parts of the West have beef. It’s the idea of terroir,” explains Becker, using a French word that connotes a sense of place. “If you are living in Iowa, I can’t think of a better thing to do than raise pigs.”

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