It’s nearly impossible to scroll on social media without seeing an indulgent-looking charcuterie board — from breakfast or dessert boards to everything in between. It’s safe to say it’s a foodie favorite at intimate gatherings or larger soireés. What’s sometimes lost in translation, however, is the term itself. By definition, a charcuterie board must contain meat. The word charcuterie describes shops in 15th-century France that sold pork products. ‘Chair/char’ means flesh, while ‘cuite’ means cooked. Today, it comes down to food displayed in a desirable esthetic.
For our take on the perfect charcuterie board, we went to Kate Hill, professional chef, culinary teacher, and host of SOMM TV’s Cooking with Wine. She’s based in Southwest France and shares quintessential French insights into creating the perfect summer charcuterie board.
Six Essentials For the Perfect Charcuterie Board
The Baguette Base
No charcuterie board is complete without a base of bread. Hill’s pick? France’s sacrosanct baguette, “tear it into chunks, slice it into thin wedges, grill it, or serve toasted.” Its versatility is unmatched and provides endless options to complement and contrast other textures on the board. For more French-inspired bases, Hill suggests the nutty flavor and texture of a buckwheat galette or a stack of thin lacy crackers – made like crêpes – good for smoother spreads. For those adverse to gluten, try a crispy chickpea socca. “It’s a mainstay in Nice and along the Côte d’Azur, sprinkled with coarse salt and a perfect companion to a glass of chilled rosé,” says Hill.
Crunchy Crudités and Sweet Summer Fruit
A charcuterie board is perfect for showing off seasonal fruits and veg. Hill recommends “melons, peaches, and berries that are a sweet counterpoint to the classic salty hams and cured meats” in the summer. “Toss thin slices of saucissons or chorizo with melon cubes or a peach/nectarine and ham combo.”
In contrast, fresh and crunchy crudités provide the perfect anchor for the board. Classic French favorites include celery root remoulade, grated lemon carrots, or pickled beets. For added texture and flavor, build a tower of crisp fennel slices, lightly brine some cucumber, or mix a tartare of radishes.
Believe it or not, a classic aperitif board in France rarely includes cheese. Hill explains, “It’s often reserved as a ‘savory dessert’ after the mains or sometimes accompanies a salad.”
Simmer down, cheese lovers. That doesn’t mean it can’t be a part of your board. Grab a triple-cream Brie or a wedge of golden-aged Mimolette for a mild but creamy option. For something with a slightly firmer texture, Gouda is a mild addition which is usually a crowd-pleaser. Add an aged White Cheddar to the mix if you love stronger flavors.
The Crux Of It All: Cured Meat
Considering charcuterie means ‘cured meat’ – this part is non-negotiable. Without it, you’re simply building a board of various fares. Being based in France, the options are near-endless for Hill, “from cooked pâtés to salt-cured and dry-aged hams; there are as many different styles of charcuterie as there are regions in France.” For its decadence, Hill suggests a regional favorite in Gascony, “a succulent pâté de campagne or fricandeaux, a pork meat, liver, and potato pate seasoned only with salt and pepper and baked in loaves or baseball-sized boules wrapped in caul fat. Slice it rather than spread.”
For options that you can pick up at your local grocer, opt for thinly sliced ham or slow-cured sausage or prosciutto.
One Last Dipping Agent
Don’t forget the dips and spreads for a complete exercise in balancing your board. Hill suggests one of two routes for authentic, French-inspired options, “we use spreads based with crème frâiche (for crudités) for vegetables or an olive oil-based garlicky aioli when the season shouts summer.
Add red pepper jelly or honey for a flavor burst that will never lead you astray.
Balancing Your Charcuterie Board
The pièce de résistance of a perfect charcuterie board isn’t the decadent ingredients or the show-stopping presentation; it’s the overall balance of the board. No matter what you include, Hill urges playfulness, “balancing the salty cured charcuterie and fresh, crisp elements of crudites is a lesson in playfulness. Sometimes, I offer one great platter of sliced meat with just a few condiments as punctuation. Other times I fill my table with small boards that we pass around again and again.”