When we arrive in the world, the only sustenance we know is milk… and eventually some mashed up fruits and vegetables. No one was born knowing about caviar or pâté or charcuterie. Even the most adventurous eaters have to be introduced to the unusual dishes they enjoy and learn about them, so don’t feel bad if you look at a menu and say to yourself, “I think I kind of know that that is.” The only bad question is the one that goes unasked, so we’ll ask it for you, “What is charcuterie?”
Danilo Alfaro, a culinary arts guide for About.com, explains simply that “charcuterie is the art of making sausages and other cured, smoked, and preserved meats.” That’s great – if you understand what it means for meat to be cured. Curing to create charcuterie can cover all sorts of techniques, such as salting, drying, smoking, and canning. It’s hard to imagine, but think back to the days before refrigeration. There had to be a way to preserve the meat for long periods of time without keeping it cold. Salting and curing (which involves adding nitrates or nitrites to the salt) both draw out the moisture that would normally allow bacteria to thrive and grow. The bacteria aren’t killed altogether, but they do stop growing or are at least slowed down. The nitrates that are added to the salt when meat is cured means that a) the meat is a little more edible because it’s not as salty and b) spoilage is further prevented.
So we now know that charcuterie is cured or preserved in a way that doesn’t require refrigeration. In bars and restaurants in Europe, it’s common to see these meats hanging from the ceiling or mounted on spikes to make for easy slicing. What’s different about charcuterie now from charcuterie in the old days, though, is that at one time the word charcuterie only referred to pork products. Today, any smoked or cured poultry, seafood, fish, or other meat, can be considered charcuterie. Other items you may have heard of that are traditionally categorized as charcuterie are the aforementioned pâtés, confit, and galantines.
You’ll often find that charcuterie is served with a variety of cheeses. The reason cheese and charcuterie work together so well is because our palates appreciate having another taste to offset the richness and saltiness of the charcuterie. And really, think of the simple pleasure of a ham and cheese sandwich. We’ve all appreciated a good meat and cheese combo ever since we were carrying our lunches to school, even if we didn’t know why.
At Ceres Bistro in Worcester, Massachusetts, we serve an ever-changing selection of three cheeses and two meats on our Cheese and Charcuterie Slate. The following are just an example of the selection we offer:
- Roaring Forties Blue Cheese made from cows’ milk at King Island Dairy in Australia
- Mahon, made from cows’ milk in Spain, produced by Forever Cheese
- Zamarano, made from sheep’s milk in Spain, produced by Forever Cheese
It is possible to cure meat at home and create your own charcuterie, but it’s also very challenging. It’s important to understand safety measures when curing meat so that your product doesn’t hurt anyone. The last thing you want is for someone to suffer food poisoning because your charcuterie was not properly prepared. There are several books on the craft of charcuterie, including Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing. Matt Wright, a curing enthusiast, also goes into great detail about the safety of meat curing safety here.
If you decide to try your hand at curing meat and create your own charcuterie plate, we would love to hear about it in our comments section! In the meantime, as you learn the techniques and throw out a lot of product (and you will throw out a lot of product as you are learning), visit us at Ceres Bistro for inspiration and motivation. Of course, if curing isn’t of interest to you at all, you can always count on Ceres to serve the finest cheese and charcuterie so you don’t have to.
Speak up in the comments section and let us know about your favorite charcuterie selections. We’d also love to know if there are any other menu items you’d like to learn more about.