Done right, the charcuterie board is an awe-inspiring sight. There are the meats, of course, in a smorgasbord of cuts, cures, and flavors. And then there are the mustard and pickles and crusty baguettes, and the fact that we get to eat it all with our hands. In a world where fine dining typically comes with dainty cutlery and elegant plating, charcuterie speaks to a different, gloriously primal, kind of indulgence.
But what exactly is French charcuterie? How does it differ from, say, the cured meats of Italy, or the bounty of smoked Delikatessen meats made in neighboring Germany? And what do experts consider the most noteworthy items under the charcuterie umbrella?
The word itself comes from the French words chair, meaning "flesh," and cuit, meaning "cooked." It first entered the culinary lexicon in the 15th century to represent storefronts specializing in the preparation of pig and offal at a time when shop owners weren't allowed to sell uncooked pork. These owners, charcutiers, would hang inventory in their shop windows to draw customers in. It worked: The craft was mastered, and a culture was born.
As for how it's defined today? Elias Cairo, founder and charcutier of Oregon's Olympia Provisions, puts it simply: "Charcuterie is value-added meat," he says, "where something is added, be it salt or heat, to enhance flavor and prolong shelf life." So, really, charcuterie is an exercise in crafty innovation—resulting from a need to preserve the fruits of a day's hunt. Smoked meats and fish came first. Cured meats came second. Once processed, many products in the charcuterie canon were covered with melted fat, either butter or rendered poultry fat, to maximize stability and prevent spoilage.
Then again, these methods of preservation are practiced internationally. So what makes French charcuterie so diverse and unique? "The French rely on amazing technique," says Cairo. "But they're so good at farming and processing, too, and have such respect for ingredients." And, while most charcuterie items are little more than pork and a few spices, it's crucial that each be of the highest caliber. "French chefs place such value not only on the end product but [on] the entire process and where the food comes from," says Camille Collins, marketing director for Les Trois Petits Cochons, the 40-year-old charcuterie founded by Alain Sinturel and Jean Pierre Pradié in Manhattan's Greenwich Village.
French charcuterie has always been shaped by regional variety as well, which contributes to its vast inventory. "Each region uses its geographic strengths," Sinturel wrote in an email, "and uses the wealth of ingredients that are readily available in that particular area." The full list of French charcuterie items is long and not at all lean, but there are a few that experts consider classics. So let's open a bottle of wine, break into some fresh bread, and dig in.
"Pâtés and terrines, broadly speaking, are essentially big sausages cooked in some sort of mold," Michael Ruhlman writes in Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing, the book he coauthored in 2005 with Brian Polcyn. Put simply, they're a mixture of fat, meat, and seasonings that can be ground or puréed.
The grind can vary from coarse to fine, and pork is the dominant pâté meat. But in the US, says Collins, "we have a broad umbrella and use the word 'pâté' very loosely." She talks about her own experience in France, where the structure of definitions is less rigid. But for the American market, which is less familiar with charcuterie products, Les Trois Petits Cochons distinguishes pâtés as coarse in texture, meat-based (from mostly duck, chicken, and rabbit), hearty, and garnished with spices and, occasionally, vegetables.
Pâté de campagne, the most common, is a coarse grind of lean and fatty pork with spices and little, if any, liver. More lavish versions are found baked in pastry dough (en croûte), in a mold (en terrine), or in the skin (galantines and ballottines), but, historically speaking, the charcutier's goal was always the same: "Pâté was created to use up the excess product—offal, trim, fat—from a day of slaughter," Cairo writes in his book, Olympia Provisions, coauthored with Meredith Erickson.
A typical pâté de campagne comes in the form of a savory loaf, flavored with onions, white pepper, and cognac. It's a deeply porky product that's simultaneously light and delicate.
"The terrine category throws a lot of people off," Collins says. "We tried to keep it as a more vegetable-based or seafood-based category because what we found in France was [that] a lot of the vegetable and seafood items were termed terrines." Collins also notes that most of the layered charcuterie items she's found in France use the term. In Charcuterie, Ruhlman writes that "we use the words pâté and terrine interchangeably. Technically, though, terrine is short for pâté en terrine."
So vegetable and fish terrines are ubiquitous, but a Terrine des Trois Rois ("three kings"), layering chicken, creamy foie gras, and boozy Armagnac-marinated prunes, is a great example of a traditional meat terrine. It plays on texture as much as on flavor: Prunes are ground and pressed into an airy spread that tops a classically dense-yet-light foie gras and coarsely ground chicken, flavored with celery and shallots.
That foie gras pops up quite often in terrines—most notably as a foie gras torchon. Torchon means "dish towel," though these days many chefs use cheesecloth, twisting the ends of the fabric tightly together to force out excess air and create a uniform texture and shape.
Mousses, like pâtés, can be made from a variety of meats. But a mousse is much more finely ground, yielding a smooth texture. And, while you'll find liver in both pâté and mousse, the percentage is typically much higher in mousses, which gives them their famously creamy consistency.
"Pâté and mousse and all the products we make, a lot of people think of them as high-end, which is great, because we use great ingredients, and they're labor-intensive. But pâtés and mousses are really a labor of love. They utilize items that are essentially leftovers," says Collins.
The transition from liver to mousse typically starts by soaking livers in cold water. "This will remove some of the really iron-y flavor that liver may have," Cairo says. For his pork liver mousse, Cairo marinates livers for two days once they've soaked, after which they're puréed in a food processor and passed through a fine-mesh sieve. The rich liver, enhanced with a dose of cream and egg before it's cooked, is balanced with a splash of port. Chili flakes, white pepper, and coriander add a spiced depth to the spread.
Though rillettes can be made from meat simmered in stock, the most traditional iteration starts as confit—meat that's been heavily salted and then cooked in its own fat. But where confit is presented whole, rillettes call for finely shredding or chopping the cooked meat and then folding it back into that fat. From there, the rillettes are packed into a small container, making them less unwieldy than an entire confited duck leg, and topped with a final layer of fat, which keeps air out and extends shelf life.
Pork is considered the standard choice for rillettes due to its relative affordability, but duck and rabbit are often used as well. An amazing rillettes will be spreadable, soft, and rich, with a slight chew from the lightly seasoned meat.
Boudin means "pudding," but these savory sausages are made from ground, spiced meat packed in natural casings and then boiled, poached, or blanched. The two most common varieties are blanc and noir (white and black, respectively). Blanc is more of a holiday sausage, usually served around Christmastime, and often seen in Auvergne, in central France, where chestnuts are widely grown. The Fatted Calf stores in Napa and San Francisco, California, make theirs with cream, bread crumbs, and chestnuts that have been braised in broth and bourbon.
Boudin noir is named such for the addition of pig's blood to the sausage, which gives the final product its signature deep, dark red color. "The French aren't afraid of anything," says Heather Bailie, an owner of Fatted Calf. "That's where blood comes in." Theirs, like most traditional boudin noir, is a pork product made from a mixture of shoulder, blood, diced back fat, caramelized onions, apples (when they're in season), and a salty, smoky Basque spice called piment d'Espelette. The sausage mixture is encased, tied off at the ends, and poached in water with onion and bay leaf. The blood solidifies as it cooks for a delicate, savory sausage with a mousse-like texture.
The regional variation in French charcuterie is perhaps most evident in saucisson: dry-cured, fermented salami. Dry-curing is simply preserving meat by using salt. As saucissons age, natural, healthy molds develop on the casings that prevent bad bacteria from contaminating the meat. These casings can be removed, but Cairo, who makes four different, regionally inspired saucissons, encourages leaving the natural casings intact to enhance the experience.
Saucisson sec (dry) is the most common of the French saucisson arsenal. "If you go to France and go to a charcuterie shop and buy a dried salame," Cairo says, "this is the flavor profile you're going to get." That profile is dominated by pork, as it should be. But Cairo strikes a balance of that porcine perfection with a hint of garlic and a subtle spice from traces of black pepper, the only other two components of saucisson sec. This type of charcuterie is about simplicity and respect for ingredients.
As you travel around France, though, you'll discover many variations on the theme. In Alsace, saucisson is traditionally spiced with clove, allspice, cinnamon, and nutmeg, making a deeply savory and satisfying wintry salame. In Arles, where it is at its purest, you'll find it made with just pork and salt. Meanwhile, eastern France, near the Swiss Alps, is famed for its saucisson aux noisettes, a salame made with pork, salt, and whole hazelnuts from Savoy.
Cooked and cured hams are frequently seen in French charcuterie, but different regions are known for different types. Jambon de Paris is a three-muscle, lean, low-fat ham wrapped in its own skin and cooked in its own juices. It's flavored with nothing but salt. With little else to distract from that flavor, the meat must be high-quality. Jambon de Paris is the perfect slicing ham, typically cut thin and served with butter on baguettes or on croques monsieurs and croques madames.
Jambon de Bayonne is the quintessential French cured ham, the country's equivalent of Italian prosciutto di Parma or prosciutto di San Daniele. It comes from the city of Bayonne in southwest France, a city cut in two by the Adour River, which sits in the shadows of the Pyrenees Mountains. Jambon de Bayonne is a regionally protected foodstuff under PGI (protected geographical indication)—a designation that covers goods whose production, processing, or preparation takes place in a specific area. To qualify, the ham must be cured with salt from the Adour River basin only. This, along with USDA restrictions on the number of foreign meats allowed for import, is part of the reason Bayonne ham wasn't spotted on American shores until the spring of 2017.
Thinly sliced, a piece of Bayonne ham tastes like a cool glass of clean river water. It's slightly salty, evidence of the Adour River's proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, and then sweet from traces of pork fat that melt on your tongue. It's still difficult to find in the US, so your best bet is a specialty meat and cheese shop. The minimum age for a jambon de Bayonne is only seven months, but a longer cure will give it a more intricate and nuanced flavor—the 12-month ham sold at Murray's Cheese is something truly special.