‘Saluti’: Stop winging your charcuterie board

Wednesday, June 12, 2019 - 8:24pm

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You simply cannot half-ass a charcuterie board.

I will not allow it, and I say this out of love: Many of you are playing the charcuterie game, and you’re not quite winning yet. I’ve been there, too — and garnering the respect my favorite dish deserves was a learning curve. But the minute we don’t give this glorified finger food at that bougie Brooklyn pregame our full effort, attention and energy, she starts to look less like the aesthetically pleasing dairy masterpiece of our Italian dreams and more like her sad, lonely ten-year-old cousin: the Lunchable. I have a serious bone to pick with anyone who thinks they can just happen upon a charcuterie board in ten minutes with a block of cheddar cheese, prosciutto, craisins and a canister of Blue Diamond Almonds as though it’s a spontaneous endeavor and is not akin to a well thought-out journey — treasure map, plan, a set of matching cheese knives and all.

The facts are simple: Pinterest and millennials love charcuterie boards. Why? Perhaps it’s the indulgent amount of dairy, her oh-so-Instagram-worthy nature, her timeless place on the Italian table or the practically perfect romance the charcuterie board shares with wine. Whatever the reason, in 2019, charcuterie boards and Instagram are practically inseparable — look out for that wedding invite, she’s already on the way. And yet, despite the camaraderie between excellent cheese, half-moon slivers of fatty salami, oil-soaked almonds, a pool of seeded fig jam and a pile of salted olives, some people still treat the charcuterie board as if she were the easy way out. To put it all in perspective: the charcuterie board was born in the first century A.D., when the Romans were the first to regulate the trade of “charcuterie” (cured meat products) and wrote laws regulating the proper production of pork products.

Therefore, a charcuterie board is not a substitute for a plate of pizza bagels, or frozen cocktail weiners, or watery bruschetta on stale French bread or even the beloved (at least in Ann Arbor) Trader Joe’s quiche — so we can’t arbitrarily place her in the general group we so loosely call “hors d'oeuvres.” Quite frankly, the charcuterie board is a cuisine within itself — a whole separate step to the meal-time process which fits snugly as a pre-appetizer snack, a mid-meal munch or a post-meal treat. I’d consider charcuterie flexible as she is trendy: an able-minded, agile young person ready for any time of day, any occasion. And for that reason, she deserves some respect.

Charcuterie requires time. If nothing else — not an appetizer or entree — charcuterie is an art. She is steady as a painter, fascinating as a celebrity and sweet as can be. Our desire to place her in the running alongside Buffalo wings and mozzarella sticks is misguided and honestly can get dicey. I was raised on the charcuterie board as a meal, in all her glory. I’m talking about the type of charcuterie that makes all other finger foods turn away in shame, pass out and subsequently die.

I’m talking salty, mouthwatering Manchego lying in a dreamlike state, next to hand-cut prosciutto and chunks of perfectly fatty porchetta. Beside these sit well-measured triangle slices of Pecorino Romano and large, juicy green grapes, all surrounded by Marcona almonds, miniature bowls of orange marmalade and sundried tomato. There’s half of a cracked-open pomegranate, dripping with blood-red juice, a soft goat cheese, room temperature, with a curved knife at her spine, quarter sized pieces of genoa salami, bresaola that’s been hand-cured and salted — and, last but not least, a pool of sticky honey.

When I was young it was essential that I learned to understand and appreciate the difference between prosciutto cotto and prosciutto crudo at an early age, which one pairs with which types of cheese and which types of cheese pair better with a salami, a slice of pear or a walnut instead. A well made charcuterie board demands as much forethought as a crossword puzzle, is as calculated and careful as a surgeon’s steady hand and as sensical as a math problem.

Each element of the board has its place, and none should be strewn randomly on a plate. If you’re going all-in on your charcuterie board, you might even try a wooden cheese board (Mine is from Amazon, and she works like a dream). And while we’re at it, let’s use our charcuterie boards as our creative outlet after a long day: Plan it out, stop at a few grocery stores and spend some real time meditating on the pleasure that comes from assembling the perfect charcuterie board.

It would be a disservice to not only yourself and whatever friends you’re feeding but also Italian culture if you decide to arbitrarily place a bunch of unagreeable cheeses next to raisins and some ham and call it art. Charcuterie may be a recent trend, but it is a 6,000-year-old practice, originating from the custom of curing meats. Vegetarian charcuterie board? No such thing. Never heard of her. By definition, charcuterie refers to  the branch of cooking devoted to preparing and curing meat products. What do I gather from this? Every poorly executed cheese grates me, as I’ve dedicated years to the very art of placing foreign cheese aesthetically.

Study your charcuterie. Understand her for her idiosyncrasies and her formalities. How fascinating she is, how enthralling it is, to have a wooden cheese board as a blank canvas, patiently awaiting your expertise.