A good charcuterie platter is a feast for the senses, satisfying the eyes and the taste buds with an array of delectables. The key elements? Harmony and variety. Everything else, say the experts, is a matter of personal taste.
Those two characteristics — harmony and variety — apply to the shape and texture of the platter’s components as well as to the flavours. In other words, visual appeal is as important as anything else.
Also consider who you’re feeding. Children will be pickier than adults, and a crowd of 20-somethings fresh from outdoor activities will be hungrier than an equal number of people coming from a day at the office.
Have at least three different kinds – two or three more if your cheese and charcuterie plate is the main event rather than a prelude or postscript to the meal. By limiting the number of cheeses, you don’t overwhelm guests with choice, and by having a good variety, you let them feel they’ve had “a bit of a tour,” says Dominique Jacobson of Jacobsons Gourmet Concepts.
Go for variety in texture: maybe one hard cheese, such as cheddar or gouda; one semi-soft — brie or camembert, for example; and one different cheese, such as blue.
Try to get a range of shapes — block, circle, and triangle — and some variety in colour. “I love the colour blue cheese brings to a plate,” says Jacobson.
Up the ante by having cheeses made from different types of milk — you could do one cow, one goat, and one sheep milk cheese. Cheeses from different countries also work well.
There’s no perfect combination, says Julie Villeneuve of La Trappe à Fromage. Taste to find an interesting mix.
Count on a total of 40 grams of cheese per person for a tasting platter and up to 150 grams per person if the platter is the main event (or if you have a young and hungry crowd).
And don’t serve the cheeses directly from the fridge: take them out of the cold 45 to 60 minutes ahead of time for best flavour and texture.
Limit your selection to two meats if there are three cheeses, says Jacobson, three meats if there are a few more cheeses.
Some meat should be sliced and some in pâté or spreadable form. If there are only two kinds, do one of each.
The sliced meat could be a simple roast (roast beef, for example), a ham or other type of smoked or cured meat, or a sliced sausage. Do have the meat sliced in advance unless you’re preparing for a tiny group. It can be awkward to cut through a piece of dry sausage while balancing a drink at a cocktail party.
The spreadable could be a traditional pâté; a rustic, chunky rillette; or a light, smooth mousse.
Alain Bisson of La Maison Bisson says some people worry about the ingredients (nitrates, for example) in prepared or cured meats, so if this is a concern, do ask before buying. There are products that don’t contain them.
Baguette or crackers? Probably both: thinly sliced baguette, for sure, and crackers if you want variety.
“Some people like crunch,” says Villeneuve, “and some like soft bread.” As for the type of cracker, remember that it’s just a vehicle for delivering cheese or meat to the mouth. “I always suggest something with as little flavour as possible,” she adds.
Bisson suggests dried slices of baguette if you want crunch without competing flavours, but Jacobson says there are plenty of interesting crackers on the market that can add to the visual appeal of the platter. “A lovely cracker is beautiful,” she adds.
Many accompaniments are possible, from the standards (olives, nuts, gherkins, fresh or dried fruit) to the more refined (port jelly, chutney, or a caramelized onion spread).
Choose the garnishes to pick up the flavours of the mains, refresh the palate, and add to the visual appeal of the platter.
“The pickle you eat your foie gras mousse with makes for an explosion of flavours in your mouth,” says Bisson.
Jacobson says there are three options for garnishes — sweet (jellies and fruits), sour (gherkins and pickled onions), and crunchy (nuts). She loves a plum spread on cheese. A larger platter could have one of each.
Though Bisson’s company is not, strictly speaking, local, he recommends the spreads and jellies from Concept Connivence from Île-Perrot near Montreal, which can be found at speciality shops such as Canada in a Basket.
A lovely platter on which to display the food is part of the package. Does it matter whether your platter is wood, glass, or porcelain?
It depends who you talk to.
Villeneuve says the humidity in cheese and the fats in the meat can stain some wooden boards. But that doesn’t bother Bisson, who shrugs it off by saying that the food doesn’t usually stay on the platter long enough to leave a mark.
The only thing Bisson worries about is the heft of the platter itself: it should be solid enough so that you can slice off some cheese without worry.
Jacobson prefers wood, adding that on glass or porcelain surfaces, the sound of the knife as it cuts can make a disconcerting clink. The most important thing, she says, is to get creative and make it all look nice.
Wine and cheese are a natural pairing. But should you choose your beverages to go with the food or pick the food to go with the beverages?
Either way is fine; it depends on what you want to highlight. But do consider one when planning for the other. “It does matter,” says Jacobson, adding that in her experience, there is only one beverage that pairs with every cheese perfectly, and that’s a 10-year-old tawny port.
To enhance the tasting experience, Jacobson recommends tasting your food on its own first and then with the appropriate beverage.