The Art of Charcuterie

Story by Glynis Ratcliffe | Photos by Kirsten McGoey

Entertaining a crowd once meant baking sausage rolls in the oven, putting together a platter of veggies and dip, and getting chips and salsa. While each one of these appetizers still has its place, what they’re increasingly being replaced by is a charcuterie board.

It may seem like the newest culinary craze but charcuterie, the art of curing and preserving meat at its essence, has been taking place for thousands of years. As a dedicated practice, it began in the Fifteenth Century, when the laws in France required butchers to sell only cooked (which could mean dried or cured) pork products. At a time when there was no such thing as refrigeration, extending the shelf life of meats was essential, in order for families to get protein and nourishment regularly. The word charcuterie combines two French words, “chair” meaning cooked, and “cuit” meaning flesh, and charcutiers were generally pork butchers.

Charcuterie likely brings to mind Italian cured meats like prosciutto and salami, but patés, rillettes, terrines, and sausage also fall under that umbrella. In addition, while the original term referred to pork products, you shouldn’t limit yourself these days. There are plenty of other types of meats used now, including fish, duck, and various game meats.

Charcuterie boards today

These days, a charcuterie board will be made up of far more than meat. We asked a number of local business owners, who are often asked to help create charcuterie boards in some way, for their advice on how readers can achieve their own ideal creation.

According to Sinéad Skelly, owner of Dine & Style Fine Catering and Events, “the key ingredients to a successful charcuterie platter are access to a quality butcher, a decent wood plank board, and a wide variety of cured meats and accompaniments.” Here in Durham, there are several high quality butchers that import or produce their own cured meats (Halenda’s, Off the Cleaver, Buckingham Meats & Herringtons, for example). While a wood plank board isn’t absolutely necessary, “wood is visually appealing against the deep rich charcuterie items,” says Skelly, so even bamboo or cedar cutting boards are great options, if you don’t have the budget for a board.

If you do want to invest in a charcuterie board, there are several routes you can take. Reclaimed wood is a fantastic way to add character and visual appeal to a charcuterie board. If you’re feeling ambitious, Marjorie Steenson, owner of M & R Catering Co., suggests going to a local lumber yard to pick out a piece of wood to finish yourself. “Maple or walnut are beautiful woods to choose,” she says, “and since they’re untreated, finishing the wood with linseed oil after sanding it down will preserve it.”

If you’re not that adventurous, you can order a board that’s already been made from reclaimed wood. Live edge boards are beautiful, but they can be incredibly pricey. “Not everyone has the budget for a costly charcuterie board,” says Julia Davis, owner of Rustic Reclaimed Brooklin. “Barn board has more character and history, and is more reasonably priced.” Davis sources her wood from 150-year-old farms in Prince Edward County, and while her most popular size for a charcuterie board is 10x13”, she has created boards upwards of four feet in length.

Charcuterie boards, no matter where you end up getting them, need to be cared for properly if you want them to have a long life. Submersing your board in water is a no-no; Davis suggests wiping it down with a damp cloth, or spraying it with a vinegar solution when it’s gotten a bit dirtier after an event. After you’ve cleaned the board, you should oil it immediately with a natural oil of your choice, to prevent the wood from drying out over time.

Designing Your Own Board

When it comes to creating an appealing charcuterie board for your own event, there are many factors to consider. Tammy Miller, owner of Country Cheese Company, had some great tips, the most important of which was her emphasis on variety, not just of foods on the board, but of textures and flavours within each category. “Having a range of cheeses, from soft unripened, which will be milder, to a harder, aged variety with a stronger flavour, means there will be something for everyone,” Miller says. She also encourages people to include something unique that their guests wouldn’t normally buy for themselves, like an artisanal cheese from a local cheesemaker. Miller makes a great point about choosing the right crackers and bread to go with your cheese: many people make the mistake of choosing only highly flavoured crackers. “These are great to nibble on, but a plain cracker allows the flavour of the cheese to shine,” she says.

Variety is also the theme of advice from Marjorie Steenson, owner of M & R Catering Co. and Sarah-Jane Frank, head chef at M & R Catering Co. and owner of Divine Designs, her own catering company. They agree that offering enough options so that all diets – whether gluten-free, vegetarian, or other – are accommodated. Steenson also suggests including pedestals or mason jars, to offer visual interest by placing elements at different heights.

Some of the most common suggestions from all the business owners were to include fruit, whether fresh or dried, aromatic herbs to reflect the season, pickled vegetables, and dips or spreads, both savoury and sweet. Each of these components are meant to balance out or complement the mild to sharp nature of each cured meat and cheese.

In the end, the sky's the limit when it comes to creating your own charcuterie. Creativity is encouraged, so experiment take yourself slightly outside your comfort zone. The reality is that there are really no wrong choices, and as long as you have a general idea of what your guests’ tastes are, allow yourself to have some fun. And don’t forget to support local! It’s amazing how many delicious foods are a short drive away.

Light New Year Fare at Bistro 238

Story by Deborah A. Rankine | Photos by Kirsten McGoey

Having covered EAST’s restaurant scene for over 15 years, I’m surprised I hadn’t met Bistro 238’s chef Simon Bush, until now. After spending some time together, however, I realize this man is as humble as chefs come. While he gladly talks about his food and the connections to the farmers, ranchers and artisanal purveyors who provide it, when asked about the man creating the menu, he blushes.

Chef Bush immigrated to Canada from England 23 years ago, making Durham Region his home after honing his craft at restaurants, breweries and bistros throughout Great Britain, France and Spain. On this side of the pond, he worked in the kitchens of Toronto’s famed Oliver & Bonacini Hospitality group before opening and heading the brigade back of house at Gallery Cafe at Oshawa’s Robert McLaughlin Gallery for 10 years. Then, in 2005, he opened Bistro 238 in Courtice in an unassuming strip mall sans grandiose opening or media fanfare. He chose, instead, to let his food speak for itself and let those with an appreciation for good food find him. With upwards of 140 covers on a typical Friday or Saturday night in a 56-seat bistro where patrons command the table the entire evening, Chef Bush knows what it takes to keep customers returning time and again.

Speaking of good food, I compliment Chef on his simple menu. He smiles warmly. “Everything is fresh,” he says. “What is on the plate is prepared with care and attention, so it ends up being a better dish than one piled high with so many ingredients that it becomes muddled. In the end, you don’t know what you’ve eaten because there’s just too much going on.”

This “less is more” food ethos speaks volumes and ensures each component of the dish is considered. He spends as much time on what accompanies the offering as he does on the protein that crowns it. He adds: “We don’t have a deep fryer. We don’t have a griddle. Everything is done in the pan or is oven roasted or braised.” This is welcomed news, especially when most patrons are pining for delicious, healthful fare that is high on delectability and low on fat and sodium. This proves to be the perfect jumping off point to talk about Bistro 238’s ‘Bill of Fare’. Starters like Melted Brie, Sweet Onion Confit,  Roasted Pear Crostini and Wild Mushroom, and Smoked Bacon and Herb Bruschetta are must-haves. By the time you read this, a slow-baked French Onion Soup and a Charcuterie for Two Board with house-made pickles and chutneys will also join the fray. Lest I forget, the Bistro’s wildly popular Warm Flatbread will stay, though switched up for the season with toppings of rich goat’s milk cheese and roasted garlic cloves.

For mains, patrons can enjoy Ontario’s Sargent Farms grain-fed, hormone- and steroid-free Pan Roasted Breast of Chicken with Yukon Gold Mash, anointed in a Thyme Infused Jus or an Alberta Beef Striploin in a nappe of roasted onion and peppercorn pan sauce. Vegetarians can delight in a Fettuccine with Leeks, Roasted Pear and Sundried Tomato in Gorgonzola Cream.

The jewel in the mains’ crown, however, is undoubtedly Bistro 238’s succulent pan-seared, centre cut Atlantic Salmon Filet sided by locally grown Heritage (fingerling) Potatoes and buttery Winter Greens. This is clean eating at its best, with a perceptive layering of flavours and textures. As Chef says, “We concentrate on every aspect of the dish. Each element is given the same amount of time in its preparation and execution.” This dish is truly a sum of all its parts. In addition to daily and weekly features based on Chef’s whimsy and the season’s best, “event nights” like Prime Rib Wednesdays and Pasta Thursdays are not to be missed.

For libations, Bistro 238’s best sellers are Terre Di Gioia Pinot Grigio from Italy and California’s Cedar Rock Cabernet Sauvignon, both offered by the glass and bottle. On tap are an array of craft beers that change when the barrel is spent. Local favourites include Brock Street and Durham County Breweries and Barley Days Brewery, a stone’s throw away in Picton, Ontario.  A nod to Chef’s heritage, there’s also a British tap from Fuller’s Brewery in London, England. Unmistakably, a vintage powder blue Vespa parked on its kickstand sits in front of the restaurant’s bar. He grins mischievously, and reveals his guilty pleasure: “I have loads of them. I’ve driven them my entire life.” He motions to the Vespa in question: “This one came to work with me one day and, apparently, never left.”

Bistro 238
1413 King Street East Courtice, ON
905) 576-4688
Reservations recommended.

Oven Roasted Maple Glazed Salmon, Heritage Potatoes, Winter Greens (Serves 1)

Compliments of Chef Simon Bush, Bistro 238

1 centre-cut salmon fillet (about 6 ounces)
Kosher salt and cracked black pepper
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 clove garlic, minced
2 cups roughly chopped assorted winter greens (Savoy and/or Napa cabbage; leeks; spinach, etc.)
1 tablespoon Ontario maple syrup
6 hot, oven roasted fingerling potato halves, for serving

• Season both sides of salmon with salt and pepper. Set aside.

• In an ovenproof skillet set over medium-high heat, add oil and heat to simmering, add salmon and brown on both sides, then place in a preheated 425°F oven and roast 6 minutes per ½-inch thickness of filet for medium doneness, or until flesh easily flakes and internal temperature in thickest part of registers 145°F on a digital read thermometer.

• Meanwhile, in a skillet set over medium heat, melt butter, add garlic and greens and sauté until wilted and fork-tender. Season to taste with salt and pepper and keep warm until ready to serve.

• Remove salmon from oven, brush maple syrup over top and let rest 3 minutes.

• To plate, mound green onto centre of warmed dinner plate and arrange potatoes around side, top with filet and serve immediately.