Skip to main content

Mysteries about charcuterie, solved

I have tried, and failed, at charcuterie. I have ordered unconvincingly from menus thick and thin, never sure what meaty and/or cheesy things would appear tableside (or how I should attack them when they did).

At a fancy engagement party not long ago, I ordered “head cheese” from the charcuterie menu, hoping for a full-flavored, heady cheese with toast points.

Head cheese, friends, is a room-temperature meat jelly made of the head of a pig — totally fine, so long as you go in knowingly, with the unconditional blessing of your nervous and digestive systems. As they say, surprise pork tongue is the worst kind of pork tongue.

In order to head off future faux pas, I consulted Brett McClavy and C.J. Bienert, chef/charcuterier and co-owner, respectively, of The Cheese Shop of Des Moines, purveyors of world-class cheeses and cured meats. Below, the resulting two-pronged road map to masterful dealings in meat products.

#1 – Know the Basics

“I think a lot of people get confused about charcuterie — just what it even is,” said Bienert. Contrary to popular belief, charcuterie has nothing to do with cheese, though the two are complementary.

“I don’t know where the misconception that [a charcuterie board] had cheese on it came from,” said McClavy. “I don’t know if it’s like a Food Network thing, because charcuterie is like a hot button trendy word…”

“Rachael Ray. I totally blame Rachael Ray,” laughed Bienert.

Charcuterie, in the traditional sense, is concerned with cured meats. A board might include a liver mousse, country pâté, whole muscle cuts like prosciutto, and cooked and dry cured sausages — often, specialties that make use of underutilized parts of the animal, like the head and organs. There will also be sweet and tangy condiments (chutney, mustard, and the like) to cleanse the palate, enhance flavor and cut richness.

It may go without saying, but a charcuterie board is meant to be shared. For one, the portions are generous. Two, “You’re going to discover fun little tastes and flavors and texture contrasts that you can share with other people,” said Bienert.

#2 – Etiquette Be Damned

Manners are important, but overly-orchestrated silverware play is an impediment to the warm and fuzzy experience of eating from a shared plate. What’s important are your company and the food, not how the food makes its way from board to mouth, said the experts. Anyway, most everything is spreadable or easily enough plopped on a crostini, and there’s nothing wrong with using your fingers to pick up a piece of prosciutto or salami, said Bienert. “It’s a finger food. It’s an honest food.”

How about a date-appropriate food? Maybe, if you’re trying to test him or her. “If that’s your thing, I say go right to the pig’s head,” said McClavy.