Getting on board with the Charcuterie
A simple search for “charcuterie” on any social media produces over a million results. There are (literally) hundreds of groups dedicated to the artistry of it and looking at the beauty and creativity involved in the assembly of some of these “meat and cheese boards,” it’s evident why it is considered an art form. . With just a little digging you’ll find terms like “charcuterie influencers and charcuterie revolution,” and you’ll quickly see why this not-so-new trend is so wildly popular with hosts and hostesses of all ages.
While the word “charcuterie” (pronounced shar-kood-er-ree) can seem “bougie” and Instagrammable-trendy, it’s interesting to note that we humans have been salting and smoking meats for preservation for at least 6,000 years.
Curing meats for both survival and for commerce is a practice that has endured from almost the beginning of civilization.
But charcuterie boards that resembles what we see today really fully-developed in France during the 1400s when charcutiers, or butchers, weren’t allowed to sell uncooked meat. The crafty owners of these butcher shops began to display stylized plates of “cooked flesh” (!) and as their popularity grew, the Charcuterie Board integrated into French gastronomic mainstream culture.
Eventually breads, cheeses, fruits, and vegetables were added as accompaniments to the meats, forming the charcuterie board as we know it today.
In practical terms, charcuterie is the opposite of pretentious because of its versatility and accessibility: many people don’t have the culinary skills or a state-of-the-art, huge, showroom kitchen in which to make intricate appetizers or elaborate party food for guests. However, putting together a small (or large) board with meat and cheese is simple, beautiful, delicious, and in most cases, economical.
Serving charcuterie at a party can also be a source of memorable conversations and getting to know each other. Discussing different flavor profiles, e.g., “Try the cranberry cracker with goat cheese, prosciutto, a slice of fig, and a drip of honey on top…then take a sip of the white wine,” can be a very open and unassuming way to talk to new people in a social setting.
Millennials seem particularly enthusiastic about ‘boards’ of all sorts: breakfast, fruit, artisanal breads with gourmet butters, desert, etc. because of their simplicity and aesthetic qualities. Rich colors and textures make food boards fun and creative and in the age of technology overload, the tactile nature of designing a board allows us to be artistic (as well as give our guests a delicious meal.)
I have made s’mores boards for campfires, taco boards for sleepovers, a chili board for movie night, and a hotdog and French fry connoisseur board for my oldest’s 22nd birthday. We even did an ice-cream toppings board for a summer kick-off pool party. Food boards, particularly charcuterie (meat and cheese) are an extremely functional and adaptable option for most any event.
Serving modern charcuterie at your own party really has no rules: you can keep it as uncomplicated or as ‘hifalutin’ as you like or as your budget allows. You can stick with basic meats and cheeses or dress it up with fresh or dried fruits, a variety of artisan breads and crackers, olives, spreads, honey, preserves or jams.
The aesthetic is just as important (and as much fun) as the actual food. Creativity, presentation, and graciousness are equal partners with flavor when it comes to charcuterie.
I love elements of nature on my table when I’m serving basics like meat, cheese, bread, and fruit. For our decorations, I took advantage of a recent storm’s spoils and used a fallen branch from my yard that I wrapped it in fairy lights for the centerpiece (after I sprayed the branch generously with bleach water, rinsed it thoroughly, let it dry in the sun, and then brought it inside to insure we had no unwelcome critters on our table!)
From fancy to frugal, a party that features a charcuterie spread is a choice that will always feel welcoming and impressive with its lovely colors, interesting textures, and luscious flavors. It’s bold and unostentatious in balanced measure, a feast for the eyes as well as the palate. You do not have to be rich or an expert in the kitchen to make this a successful menu. It’s something to truly enjoy eating and serving and it’s something fun to talk about.
Tips for a Successful Charcuterie Board Menu
Basic Elements of a Charcuterie BoardIf you’re serving charcuterie as a party appetizer, you will need about 3 ounces of meat and cheese (total) per person. If you’re serving it as a main course, 6 ounces per person is standard.
- Flavors: Try to include basic at least 4 of the 5 basics: sweet, salty, umami (savory), bitter, and sour.
- Savory: Meat and Cheese:
Cheese: try to include at least three kinds of cheese (but more is great!) I usually have mild, medium, and sharp cheeses plus at least one non-dairy option such as goat Chevre. Mozzarella, provolone, smoked Gouda, pepper jack, Gruyere, gorgonzola, aged sharp cheddar, fontina, Parmigiano-Reggiano are all some good choices. Note: Cheese should be served at room temperature, however, it is easier to slice when it’s cold so slice your cheese when it’s chilled, and then let it sit at room temperature for about an hour before guests arrive.
Meat: try to include a variety of smoky, salty, spicy, light and rich meats, pates, and terrines such as and terrines such as , galantines, ballotines, pancetta, sopressata, Genoa dry-cured chorizo, mortadella, smoked salmon, Pâté, Mousse Truffée, or if you want to get a little more urbane, smoked duck breast. , are interesting picks. Readily available choices include pepperoni, black forest ham, liverwurst, peppered or Genoa salami, prosciutto, and capicola.
- Sweet: Dried or fresh fruit
- Dried mango, apricots, figs, dates, or really any kind of dried fruit will be an asset to your board. Fresh fruit such as grapes, sliced apples, pears, berries, or melon are classics not only because of their beauty, but also the practicality they bring: they tend to assist in cutting the fatty taste in the meats.
- Preserves, honey, jams, candied nuts, chocolate covered raisins all create some effective finishing touches. .
Garlicky hummus or honey mustard are popular selections, or possibly a Southern staple: pepper jam and cream cheese. Whole grain mustard gives the table a burst of beautiful color and texture and mini dill pickles are always a good balancing element. Add pickled olives (black, green, or pitted Kalamata) or perhaps a combination antipasti, cornichons (gherkins,) or marinated mushrooms to may give your bill of fare the exact sharpness it needs.
Raw or roasted nuts like almonds, walnuts, cashews, and pistachios help deliver diversified texture while spicy sunflower seeds, macadamias, or salted pecans can provide familiarity with their chewy crunch.
Stuffed and plain olives, cranberries, lemon slices, broccoli, arugula, and dark chocolate are some of the bitter beauties that make up the most difficult flavors with which to pair. This could be a source of great fun if you issue a challenge during the party to whomever can create a great profile using one of these strange flavors, he or she should win a prize. If it’s New Year’s, then why not give away the “Greatest Luck” Award? Or just print up a certificate for “Best Pairer” of 2020. That will go into the annals of history considering the year we’ve had! Regardless, fun is the goal.
8. Texture: Keep it interesting by incorporating diverse textures: crunchy and smooth, crisp and creamy, sweet and sour, salty and citrusy, etc.
- Breads and crackers
Toasted baguette, bread sticks, pita chips, pumpernickel slices, wheat crackers, bagel chips, crusty French bread, pretzel sticks, water crackers, or even soft Hawaiian cubes all make for great bases and interesting comments.
- Spreads and Oils
Stone ground mustard, tapenade, hummus , or white bean dip, and the like are nice additions to have for guests to coat on a cracker, plunge a pretzel through, or dunk a vegetable in. These spreads are great for smearing on sliced baguette and then stacking meat and cheese on top. A classic balsamic vinegar and olive oil bowl with crusty bread for dipping is always a hit.
- Keep the colors of everything in mind when buying / planning for your table. Seek out vibrant hues and saturated tones in the foods you choose and place both complimentary and opposite shades side by side.
- Decorate with sprigs of rosemary, watercress, or other natural items. I was aiming for a dreamy, “woodland” feel so I used twinkle lights wrapped around a natural tree branch for our centerpiece. and my Viking forks that we bought from Norway at Disney World (!) My kids wrote in all the names of the foods and helped me choose which dishes to use.
- Often I prefer to use many smaller serving dishes including slate tiles, wooden boards, iron trays, and glass shelves instead of a single, giant surface.. Don’t feel as though you have to squeeze everything onto one giant board. When boards are too full, the flavors can become disorganized haphazard and food can fall off. By the end of the evening, it can be a huge mess so use as many serving pieces as you need to have the look you want and to fit everything you want to include.
- Don’t be shy about mixing and matching boards of varying shapes, sizes and colors.
- Labels: Name everything with a placard or chalk board so there’s no question about what everyone is eating. This will also make it easier to remember which profiles are peoples’ favorites.
- Serving Utensils: Make sure every item has its own serving utensil so flavors don’t mix haphazardly. That means each cheese should have its own knife, each spread should have its own spoon and so on. This is especially important if you are providing gluten-free options: those items cannot touch other bread products ever.
- Tips for a Successful Charcuterie Board Menu
- Plan for about 1-2 ounces of cheese per person. As with your meat selections, have your cheese sliced thin (at a 1-2 thickness) to make layering easier. If you’d like to incorporate cheese cubes, or have guests cut their own pieces, have those sliced at an 8-10 thickness.
- Serving tip: cheese is most flavorful at room temperature, but it’s easier to cut when chilled. So slice your cheese when it’s cold, and plan to let it sit at room temperature for at least half an hour before people start nibbling.
- Spreads Serving tip: for a polished look, serve spreads in small dishes rather than in their original plastic containers. An exception can be made if the spread comes in a decorative package, such as a charming glass jar. Include serving spoons for each spread.
- Lambrusco—the bubbles cut through the richness of the meat.
- Alcohol: When appropriate it’s nice to include alcohol with to your charcuterie experience. Wine and beer pair excellently with meat and cheese and can enhance the flavor experience. As a basic rule, you want to pair bold-flavored meat and cheese with bold-flavored alcohol. For instance, goat cheese, smoked salmon and prosciutto pairs well with white wine, while salami, cheddar, and blue cheese go great with red wine.
Focus on three styles: saison, wild ale, and porter. Each can appeal to a range of palates, and all three can cut through the fat of the meats and play off other characteristics of the food.22 Pilsners with slightly salty meats such as prosciutto
American Wheats with spicy meats such as pepperoni
IPA with peppery sausages and meats such as mordatella
European Lager with sausage meat-blends such as Genoa salami
Hearty reds such as Pinot Noir work well with charcuterie pairings.Pinot Noir with meats such as hard salami
Lambrusco with spicy sausages such as chorizo
Sauternes with forcemeats such as pates and terrines
Cabernet Sauvignon with smoky meats such as black forest ham
The acidity of Italian sparkling wines such as Proseccos and Lambruscos reset the palate, as can off-dry Rieslings
Fizz is a common component of our beverage selections, and your non-alcoholic choices are no exception. That doesn’t mean reaching for sodas; that sweetness can be overwhelming. Soft drinks are not a good choice for charcuterie because of their overwhelming sweetness. Stick with tonic, regular, water and mineral waters , especially with a slices of lime and or lemon nearby. , is a refreshing choice.
Photos by Alissa Fleming except the vintage charcuterie storefront in Crackers & bread: While your guests can get along perfectly well without crackers or sliced baguette, these items can be great for pairing a variety of ingredients for providing stability to the bite. I like to provide gluten-free crackers as well as regular crackers. I choose crackers that don’t have a huge amount of flavor, added herbs or salt so that the crackers don’t detract from the flavor of what’s being added to them.
Toulouse France 1928 (public domain)