A charcuterie board is essentially a culinary choose-your-own-adventure story. It's made up of an assortment of cold, cooked and cured meats, and supported by a selection of cheeses, dips, spreads, tangy pickles, crackers and fresh fruit and vegetables, all perfectly arranged on a board or platter.
Originating from the French chair ("flesh") and cuit ("cooked"), and pronounced "shar-coo-tur-ree", the dish originated hundreds of years ago in Europe as a "mezze" of cured meats that highlighted traditional forms of meat preservation and flavour enhancement.
Nicola Romano, the Italian-born head chef at Melbourne restaurant Oster, says that for Italians, a charcuterie board will appear at the table without fail when friends or family get together.
"The wonderful thing about a charcuterie board is its versatility," he says. "You can mix and match flavours to magnify enjoyment and combine textures and colours to offer variety and visual appeal, which makes it an ideal centrepiece for a festive gathering, either to serve as a host or to take as a guest."
To build a first-class charcuterie board, Romano suggests first answering the following questions:
• Do you want to focus on a particular region's food culture, or combine items from different countries?
• What can you buy at your local supermarket? Do you need to visit a specialty grocer?
• What dietary needs do you need to accommodate?
As a guide, if the charcuterie is to be served as a starter, you'll need about 50g of cured meat per person. If it's a main, estimate roughly 150g per person.
"And ideally for your vegan and gluten-free guests make separate boards as it's a way of showing respect towards them," he adds.
Salami: Hard salamis are a must on any charcuterie board. Romano particularly recommends cacciatore salami, also known as hunter's salami. "This dry-cured salami is flavoured with juniper berries and Chianti wine, yet it's surprisingly mild and delicate in flavour."
Prosciutto: Italian ham that's salted and air-dried, usually thinly sliced and served raw.
Speck: although a close cousin to prosciutto, its distinguished smoky flavour is a result of first salt-curing then slowly cold-smoking the best part of the pork leg over wood.
Mortadella: a fine-textured cooked sausage made from heat-cured pork meat. Cubes of fat in the mixture give mortadella its signature white "polka dot" look. Some mortadella is flavoured with black pepper, pistachios and even myrtle berries.
Bresaola: "One of the few renowned cured meats not made from pork, Italian beef tenderloin is salted, air-dried with a sweet musty smell," says Romano.
If you prefer to use fish over cured meat, Richard Longden, chef at Eyre Peninsula Seafoods, recommends choosing two or three types of seafood that can be left out for grazing.
Octopus: Longden suggests marinating raw octopus overnight in red wine, garlic and bay leaves, before cooking in the oven at 180C for two hours. Just before serving, grill for a few minutes then drizzle with olive oil and lemon. "The smoky, garlic and lemon aromas will definitely wow your guests."
Prawns: "Simply buy large whole cooked Australian prawns, defrost and serve," says Longden. If you prefer fried prawns, simple favourites include pub-style beer-battered or garlic butter prawns.
Oysters: A luxurious delicacy, Longden suggests serving small, sweet Pacific oysters on the half shell with a dressing.
Mussels: "Barbecue pot-ready mussels until they all open, remove one shell, add a teaspoon of gremolata (a mix of garlic, lemon juice, lemon zest, chopped parsley and olive oil) and season with freshly ground pepper," recommends Longden.
Choose a variety of flavours and textures, ranging from soft to hard, advises Tassos Dermetzoglou, of The Thornbury Fromagerie in Melbourne.
Mild-soft: Maffra Brie is a lovely creamy brie-style cheese made in Gippsland. Another option is L'artisan Extravagant, a triple cream cheese from a third-generation French cheesemaker in Victoria.
Strong-soft: Milawa King River Gold is a Victorian washed rind with a soft interior and a slightly gritty, orange-ish rind. It has a strong scent and a rich, almost smoky and nutty flavour, which gets stronger as the cheese ripens. Berry's Creek Tarwin Blue will change your perception of blue cheese, says Dermetzoglou, who describes it as "fudgy and dense with a decent ammonia hit and earthy qualities".
Mild-hard: Dermetzoglou recommends Apostle Whey Cheese Heytesbury Harvest, available in plain, chilli or smoked. "This is a mild cheddar-style cheese with a smooth texture and creamy taste," he says. "The smoked variety is a real winner, using eucalyptus twigs to give it its flavour, and coupled with a touch of camping-trip nostalgia, it's uniquely Australian."
Strong-hard: Prom Country Picnic Point is a semi-hard cheese made from spring-pasture-fed ewe's milk. "Matured for over six months, the added cumin seeds enhance its spicy and earthy flavour, and the savoury notes will balance the strong flavours of cured meats," says Dermetzoglou.
Jo Thompson, owner of The Artisan Cheese Room in Manly, says that the NSW cheese scene is on the rise with some wonderful cheesemakers producing cheeses of amazing quality.
Mild-soft: The delicate burrata, a fresh cheese made from mozzarella and fresh cream, by Vannella Cheese in Marrickville, is a customer favourite favourite. "This hand-tied cheese is light, velvety and milky, which makes it absolutely perfect for summer," she says.
Strong-soft: Mould-ripened Bloomy cheese from Pecora Dairy based in the Southern Highlands is made from raw sheep's milk. "Its dense and rich centre with delicate citrus notes will leave you with a lingering creme fraiche mouthfeel," says Thompson.
Mild-hard: "The Pines Pearl' is a semi-hard alpine style cheese that has a sharp yet buttery finish which reflects the lush pastures on which the Pines cows graze – a family run micro-dairy based in Kiama that specialises in making minimal intervention cheese," says Thompson.
Strong-hard: Yarrawa, also a hard raw milk sheep's cheese from Pecora Dairy is exceptional and rare. "Buttery, nutty and grassy in taste however it's only made in small batches so if you find it, lucky you," says Thompson.
Dermetzoglou says there are two considerations when choosing the supporting cast and arranging the board. What else do I need so my guests will enjoy the main items? And what would enhance their flavours, either by complimenting them or contrasting with them with sweet and sour or salty and acidic tastes?
Dermetzoglou says odd numbers work well. For example, five meats, five cheeses and three accompaniments (crackers, fresh figs and nuts) would highlight the nutty flavours of aged firm cheeses.
Dips: An easy addition that can be store-bought or home-made – from a Mediterranean white bean dip for pita chips, a Mexican taco dip for tortilla chips, or a sriracha mayonnaise for prawns. Dips allow you to add bowls to the platter to visually break up and physically support other components.
Fruit: Add fresh and dried fruits that pair well with your meats and cheeses. For example berries with soft cheese, fresh figs or rockmelon with prosciutto, and dried figs with blue cheese.
Vegetables: In addition to raw celery and carrot sticks, consider roasted cauliflower, red capsicum or asparagus.
Olives: Kalamata olives have a smooth meaty texture, but any black or green olive will add a briny pop of flavour.
Pickles: Cornichons (tiny fermented cucumbers), or giardiniera, Italian-style pickled vegetables, add crunch and zing.
Condiments: "Truffle honey is your go-to here," says Dermetzoglou. "The sweetness will compliment almost any cheese, but it's the earthy truffle that changes the flavour profiles." Other options include quince paste and fig jam.
Breads: A neutral cracker will add texture but will also allow the flavours to do the talking; slices of lightly toasted baguette rubbed with olive oil and pencil-sized grissini are great ways to try spreadable fixings and dips.
Nuts and seeds: Toast macadamias, pistachios, pepitas or almonds to bring out their deep nutty flavour.
How to arrange the board
While there aren't any fixed rules on how to set up a grazing platter, these tips will ensure it looks as good as it tastes.
Choose a platter size and shape to suit what you plan to serve. You may even opt to create a few smaller platters to share between tables. You will also need bowls for spreads and condiments and cutlery to allow people to serve themselves.
Add variety to the overall presentation by placing smaller pieces next to larger pieces.
"Ensure you're still slicing and putting things on the board as guests are arriving as this ensures everything is fresh," says Romano. "Meats and cheeses especially tend to lose taste and texture the closer they are to room temperature."
Start with the biggest items, the cheeses, arranging them as far apart from each other as possible to make space for other things in between.
"Arrange your cheese in a way to showcase the variety. You want things to be scattered and off-set. If there's a lot of depth and texture to the platter it's more exciting and appetising," says Dermetzoglou.
From a wheel-shaped cheese cut a few wedges out and place the whole block on the board with a small knife so anyone who wants more can slice some up. Crumble soft cheese on the board to act as a spread for crackers. Cut blocks of cheese into bite-sized cubes or thin slices to add dimension.
Next, place bowls around the board to fill with dips, olives and condiments.
Place thin cuts of meat such as prosciutto on the board, folding larger round slices into quarters and fanning them out. Fold smaller slices in half only and arrange in a similar fashion. Cut sticks of salami into 5mm slices, adding toothpicks for safe picking.
Arrange bread and crackers on your board and fill in the gaps with freshly cut vegetables, nuts, and dried fruits.
For a seafood platter, arrange in groups. You can cover the platter with ice or lettuce leaves.
"Even before COVID-19 charcuterie boards always included cutlery such as small knives, spoons or forks and toothpicks to allow everyone to take their share from the common plate without creating disorder," says Romano.