The James Beard Foundation is guided by our mantra of “good food for goodTM,” which encompasses all aspects of the food system, from safe workplaces, to culinary innovation, to the environmental impact of the methods used to grow and catch our food. Below, farmer, butcher, and writer Meredith Leigh walks us through building a holiday charcuterie board that's delicious, arresting, and centered around ethical meat.
Holiday snacking is almost more fun than the feast, and a show-stopping charcuterie board can be the perfect centerpiece. Holiday butcher board offerings have become a unique tradition in my house, and a way to celebrate culture, sustainability, and community at the most joyful time of year. Here are some tips for assembling a beautiful and tasteful board, with a little help from some friends.
Start with the meat.
A well-built charcuterie board is varied and bountiful, which bodes well for different taste buds. The board pictured above has a beef bresaola, made from the eye of round, a lamb merguez salami, and a cured ham in the style of prosciutto. On another plate you’ll see a country pâté, made mostly from pork, but also including rabbit offal and chicken liver. This combo of at least three meats: a dried sausage, a whole muscle preparation, and the pâté incorporating offal, all from different species, give the perfect variation of flavor and texture. The bresaola and the pâté also make use of parts of the carcass that aren’t as favorable for fresh eating. Charcuterie, however, brings these bits to their highest expression, and allows for mindful use of the whole carcass. In the case of the merguez salami, guests might be introduced to something they’ve never encountered before: cured lamb.
Nick Ponte, head butcher at Marrow in Detroit, builds his charcuterie program off of this same premise. “Everything at Marrow starts from the whole animal, and charcuterie is an important part of how we make that possible.” He recommends combining beef, pork, and something spreadable “like a pâté or a mousse” to give broad representation of the full flavors of fat and quality meat. Jeffrey Weiss, author of Charcuteria and co-chef at Valencian Gold in Las Vegas, agrees, and for a Spanish-inspired board recommends a jamón from La Tienda, paired with a sobrasada spicy spreadable salami.
Animals raised outdoors and allowed to express their natural tendencies will produce meat and fat that reflect the terroir of their lives, much like a fine wine. This is where sourcing and fine craftsmanship come into play to make charcuterie unique and delicious. Bill Miner, founder and owner of Il Porcellino Salami in Denver, says that the animal’s fat is the biggest contributor to flavor in the finished product. “Good sourcing proves itself in the end,” he adds. I recommend Il Porcellino’s holiday salami box (be sure to get at least one of the spiced juniper!).
Play colors off of each other, and vary textures and shapes on the board, almost as if you’re painting a landscape.
I favor a bountiful spread, without a lot of space between items. Experiment with piles versus stacks, neatly lined or fanned cheeses, and geometrically sliced pâté. The color of cured meats lends nicely to warm hues, which are perfect for a holiday spread. Be sure to slice as thin as you can manage, especially for rich cheeses and salt-cured meats. Cooked pâtés may be served in chunkier portions, but on the whole, charcuterie is meant to be eaten in small portions. This allows it to melt in the mouth and prevents its complex flavors from overpowering your palate. Small servings also play a role in retraining our palates and our expectations around portion sizes, which is a crucial tenet of sustainable meat.
Acid cuts through.
Acidic and pungent components like pickles and mustards are classic, and necessary to cut through the rich flavors of charcuterie. On this board, fennel pickles with chile and orange zest complement the pâté’s hazelnut, and orange. If you don’t want to brine your own pickles, Mouth.com has fun options. My favorite mustard this season is from Mustard & Co.
Make sure to add some crunch.
Here, candied pecans with a touch of cayenne balance the spice of merguez salami. Last but not least, cheeses both hard and soft round out the offerings. Visit your local cheesemonger for recommendations on what will pair with your dominant flavors. The center cheese on this board is Ridgeline from my neighbors at Looking Glass Creamery. Both beautiful and mildly funky, its clean and milky taste pairs well with the bold flavors of salumi. The other cheese you see is a simple and fresh-tasting fromage blanc, with a mild sourness to compliment the boldness of the meats and pickles.
Finally, embellish and personalize.
Because this was a holiday board, I made a fermented chutney with cranberry and fig, and loads of warm holiday flavors like cardamom, clove, cinnamon, and ginger. I put cinnamon sticks and a tossed a few whole spices here and there, along with thinly sliced, juicy oranges—all hints to flavors found within the main offerings. And, because my family celebrates Christmas and Hanukkah, I made potato latkes with my bone marrow horseradish sauce.
Let the board reflect the land through diversity and good sourcing, and let it also reflect you: your family, your favorite flavors, and your personality. If you succeed, your charcuterie boards are sure to become a lasting tradition at the holidays.
Meredith Leigh is a farmer, butcher, chef, and author of The Ethical Meat Handbook (2015) and Pure Charcuterie (2017). She writes and travels extensively with a focus on sustainable agriculture and resilient food systems. She lives in Asheville, NC.