It seems that a Charcuterie Board (see Meat and Cheese Board) has become much more popular lately. Every wedding I go to seems to include a cheese board on the wedding registry. If you say the word cheese to me, I immediately become 10x happier, so I get the craze. While it might have a fancy name, however, a charcuterie board is not difficult and does not need to be fancy at all (although your fellow diners will ooh and aah nonetheless). The trick is variety. A cheese and meat board can be daunting due to the fact that most people have no education in cheeses or meats. But don’t be scared! Part of the fun is trying new things! And depending on where you source your products from, the store might offer you taste tests before you buy. Many stores (like Whole Foods where I purchased many of mine for this board) offer up smaller packages of cheeses and meats for purchase, so you don’t have to spend a fortune on a product you might not like. Most large chain stores are also now carrying a great variety of quality gourmet cheeses and meats for this purpose.
Tip #1: Again, variety is the key. For your cheeses, it’s all about mixing up tastes and textures. Pick and choose from textures: you should get one harder cheese (like a cheddar or Parmesan that you would typically leave in chunks or grate), one bloomy rind cheese (think brie), some softer cheese (like goat cheese…think about the kinds of cheeses you can spread easily), and some pungent cheese (like blue). You should also find variety in the taste – so some pungent cheeses like the blue or Limberger, and some milder cheeses (like brie. As far as meats are concerned, you should also have some variety. Try cured v. uncured, smoked v. non-smoked, fresher vs. drier. Try to go with some differences in flavor too: spicy, herb-y, wine-y, smoky, salty.
Tip #2: Have other things besides cheese and meat on the board. Have you ever eaten too much of one thing and suddenly your mouth can’t stand another bite? Don’t give your taste buds fatigue on a board – a board is a marathon, after all, not a sprint. I like to weave in some fresh and some dried fruit – fresh strawberries, some dried figs or cranberries or apricots, some fresh pears or some fresh grapes are always crowd pleasers and play well the cheese and meat. If I am serving Brie, I also like to include some fruit jelly or jam to go on top of the cheese, as this is a classic pairing (and addictive). I also like to include some crunchy things for texture – so nuts or chips (or hello, popcorn! Let’s mix the posh with the every-day man here!) are a good choice. Olives and pickles or other vinegary items are also great mouth breaks.
Tip #3: Try new things, but keep some old favorites. Part of a board is experiencing new things, but you don’t want to go hungry either. I always make sure that at least 2 or 3 cheeses are familiar (or you know you’ll like), especially some that are pretty mild. I like to always have a cheddar or provolone or parmesan – those are the key standbys. For meats, I always like to have a pepperoni, as most people are familiar with that. Feel free to include a lunch meat here (there are no rules!) if you think that will go over better with some of your guests – just make sure to find a quality one. Iberico ham is exalted as the king of meats in some areas of the world, so I like to give people a taste of the luxury if I can – and many large-scale supermarkets carry this now as well.
Tip #3: Carbs. Always carbs. I like to have two to three different kinds of crackers on a board as well. Some that are crunchier than other and some that offer a different taste or mouth feel than others. The key is to not overdo it with the flavor of a cracker (no, don’t get salt and vinegar crackers or cheddar-horseradish-cranberry flavored ones here). You want the cheese and meat to be the star! You can also include some softer bread to add some texture differences and to please more people.
Tip #4: Resist temptation to overdo it. I tend to go through the supermarket and find five to six cheeses I must have and four to five meats I must have. And of course, I can usually never finish everything (although I try by gorging myself to the point of pain). Start small – especially to figure out what products you like. If you have a lot of people over, then you can get crazy too, but I would not have more than 4 cheeses and 3 meats for a group of 3-4 folks. And 1-2 ounces of cheese per person is generally a good rule of thumb. Keep in mind, too, that this can get pretty expensive if you aren’t careful.
Tip #5: Don’t get cute. I’ve already alluded to it, but you don’t have to be fancy! Cheese and meat are eaten by all people, so you don’t need to find the $50/ounce cheese or serve only on all grain, gluten free, all natural, preservative free crackers. If you want to add popcorn, add popcorn to your plate. If you want to have Muenster cheese (a favorite of mine as a child but, as I’ve grown older, I’ve noticed it’s not as respected in the cheese world) or a deli lunch meat on the plate, go for it. I do not have a specialized cheese board (but if I get married, rest assured, it will be on the registry), so I used a plain ole cutting board and placed wax/parchment paper over it. This is all about trying new things, but doing what pleases you. After all, if you call it a “charcuterie board,” people think its fancy anyway.
Tip #6: Name cards. While I don’t think you need to get fancy on all the items, I do think it is a really great idea to label what product is what (or what country it’s from if you want to add more detail). That way, you remember what you like and can get again, and people aren’t as shy as trying things (there is some kind of comfort in knowing what you eating, even if you don’t understand what it means or how it tastes). Additionally, as far as clean up is concerned, I always label plastic baggies with the products, and put the portion I don’t cut up on the plate in there to preserve. So if you name card your plate, if there are un-eaten portions of it on the plate, you can find it’s packaging much easier.
Tip #7: Plan ahead. While it might seem like it won’t take that long to prepare, if you have several cheeses, several meats, and several accompaniments, it will take a while to cut everything up and arrange. Your cheese you’ll want to have at room temperature for at least 30 minutes before people eat it, so plan accordingly. Also know how you will cut each cheese (the meats are relatively straightforward). Harder cheeses should be in smaller chunks or slices/wedges. Cheese with a rind should be exposed for those who do not like to eat the rind, or cut into larger pieces so that the cheese does not ooze. Softer cheeses can be sliced or cut into bite-size pieces. I prefer not to have my guests cut their own cheese from the board, because things just get messier, but you can leave larger chunks for the aesthetic quality and have a knife resting on the plate for people to help themselves.
Now, just pop the wine, cut the cheese (see what I did there?), and let the oohs and aahs roll in!