Life is like a charcuterie board as it is all about balance — the balance between salty and sweet, soft and firm, classic and eccentric. All play a vital role in this snacking experience. Creating the perfect balance sounds simple until faced with the plethora of choices and an empty platter. All too often, the overwhelming options result in settling for an uninspiring charcuterie board.
Frequently appearing on appetizer menus alongside cheese plates and dips, “charcuterie” is a French word that refers to a variety of prepared meats. Translated literally, it means “cooked meat,” which admittedly sounds less appetizing than it actually is. Though the translation is simple, an artistic mind goes into preparing these meats. The technique of making charcuterie is based in the necessity of preservation. Charcuterie was first prepared long before refrigerators were available to extend the shelf life of meat. Meat was preserved through curing it by using salt and other chemicals along with fat to create a moist, flavorful, and long-lasting source of protein. Though these measures are no longer necessary due to modern technology, the practice and art of preparing charcuterie prevails.
The word charcuterie refers not only to the meat, but also to the artisans preparing the meat and the shops in which charcuterie is sold. Rather than calling these artisans charcuteriers, we know them as butchers. When preparing a charcuterie board at home, the best help can be found behind the counter at a local butcher shop. A professional, knowledgeable butcher will assist with samples and suggestions for building the ideal balance of flavor and texture.
In recent years, cheese has received much more attention than cured meats; therefore, people are more familiar with cheese varieties based on animal, region, and preparation process. When planning a charcuterie board, think beyond pre-packaged cold cuts. Like cheese, charcuterie has distinctive flavors and presentations based on its region of origin. Charcuterie includes sausages, spreads such as pate and rillettes, and sliced meat like prosciutto.
In addition to a balance of textures, a well-planned charcuterie board requires a synergy of flavors. Both seasonal flavors and the country of origin offer guidance when balancing and pairing on a charcuterie board. Toasted and spiced flavors dominate autumn and winter months, while lighter flavors are better suited for warmer weather. Instead of buying out-of-season fruits this time of year, substitute preserves and pickles for a fresh contrast to rich meats. Dried fruit, such as dates, pineapple, and cranberries, can complement nicely as well.
Pairing meats with cheese from the same area can be an easy way to match flavors. Iberian jamón and manchego cheese both come from Spain, and their rich salty flavors take each other in stride. For a contrasting pair, a peppery sausage from France works well with a smooth, creamy brie.
European countries are not the only ones to develop unique cured meats. The South is well known for its own cured meats that certainly deserve a place on the board. When preparing appetizers for the upcoming holiday season, consider incorporating country ham or venison jerky onto a charcuterie board. These rich Southern favorites fall directly into the category of charcuterie. Don’t be afraid to mix and match for new flavor combinations. For a contrast to a salty centerpiece, add local honey or pickled okra so that guests can decide which pair they prefer.
The balance, distinctness, and choices of the charcuterie plate make it a perfect centerpiece for a group to come together and share. And though life is about balance, it is the community that makes it worth coming to the table.