Despite the elegant reputation that accompanies most French dishes, charcuterie actually has its origins as a humble peasant dish. But don't let the simplicity of the preparation deceive you – a successful charcuterie platter, commonly known as a charcuterie board, is curated and composed with a thoughtful arrangement of textures and tastes.
Charcuterie itself describes an array of preserved and prepared meat dishes, such as cured sausages, hams, bacon, pâté and confit. The origins of charcuterie are simple: salting, curing and drying were the most effective ways to preserve meat before refrigerators came along.
The difference between the charcuterie board today and charcuterie from centuries past is that now it's served for taste, often as a luxury item, and not as one necessary for survival.
Building the Board
Putting together your first charcuterie board shouldn’t feel daunting. Follow a few basic guidelines when selecting your ingredients, and don't hesitate to try something new. When shopping, look for a well-stocked market that sells specialty foods and ask the charcutier or butcher if you want to sample an unfamiliar ingredient before buying it.
Include two or more meats from each preparation style: whole-muscle cuts, cured sausage and forcemeats. You typically need about two to three ounces of meat per person.
- Whole-muscle cuts refer to meats preserved whole, such as prosciutto, bresaola (a type of dry, salted beef from Italy) and jamón (a Spanish ham). When buying whole-muscle cuts, have the market slice the meat paper-thin, almost to the point of transparency — any thicker and you'll have difficulty chewing it. A few cuts to offer include prosciutto, speck (a lightly smoked and cured meat from Alto Adige, Italy) and either jamón Iberico or jamón Serrano, both from Spain.
- Cured sausages add heartiness to a charcuterie board, contrasting with the delicacy of the thinly sliced cuts. This type of hard sausage includes the perennial favorites salami and Spanish chorizo, as well as a few you may be less familiar with, such as rosette de Lyon, a French saucisson, or cured sausage; landjäger, a German sausage made with beef and pork; and kiełbaski myśliwska, or hunter's sausage (a Polish creation made with pork and juniper berries).
- Forcemeats contribute smoothness to the charcuterie board, offering something to spread on a crusty piece of toast or pain de campagne. Fitting forcemeats that add depth to charcuterie include pâté, such as foie de volaille (made with chicken liver and green peppercorns), and rillettes de canard (made with duck, hazelnuts and numerous herbs and spices).
For a well-rounded charcuterie board, you need one or two soft cheeses and one or two firm cheeses. Like meats, two to three ounces of each cheese per person should suffice.
- Hard cheeses pair naturally with thinly sliced whole-muscle cuts, thanks to their acidity and texture. Parmigiano Reggiano is a natural fit for prosciutto, and is usually the first choice for a platter. Other hard cheeses to try include Piave, an Italian cow's milk cheese that goes well with speck, and sbrinz, an extra-hard Swiss cheese similar to Parmesan.
- Soft and semi-firm cheeses counter the sturdiness of cured sausage. Chèvre, brie and the creamy Spanish sheep's-milk La Serena spread easily over hard sausages and have the added effect of cooling the palate when eaten with spicy meats like chorizo and Portuguese linguiça.
Sweet and Sour
Always include a few sweet and a few sour ingredients in your charcuterie. Sweet preparations such as jams and confiture are ideal foils to sharper flavors, while acidic and salty items such as cornichons, olives, fresh fruit and raw or pickled vegetables cut through the fat of charcuterie meats and cheeses.
Include two or three bread varieties: a well-made baguette needs no description, pain de champagne (a country-style French bread) is indispensable, and toasted crostini is mandatory for forcemeats.
Finish your charcuterie board strong. Although a charcuterie board is rustic, it should appear well thought-out.
- Serve the charcuterie on an attractive, yet rustic food-safe board, such as one fashioned from finished olive wood or maple. Simply fold and arrange the meats directly on the wood.
- Serve jams and confiture in the jars they come in – if the jars are attractive, of course. Do the same with pickles and other sour ingredients.
- Leave the bread whole; it will stay fresh longer.
- Provide capable serving tools. Quality cheese knives, a small dish or bowl for olive pits and spoons for jarred items are essential when crafting the charcuterie experience. Provide a serrated bread knife, but feel free to use your hands – tearing off a hunk of crusty, delicious bread to pile the goods on is not a charcuterie faux pas.