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.