It was during my first visit to see Gaylord in France that I realised how seriously the French take charcuterie. While it took me another year to eat snails, then a whole year after that I finally encountered frogs legs, charcuterie has been a weekly snack since my plane touched down in 2020. As you can imagine, it’s been a really difficult time. After all, a few slices of saucisson and a couple of bites of cheese make a satisfying snack. But load a charcuterie board with cold meats, cheeses and fruit, and you have a full meal.
In France, meal times require an adjustment period for the uninitiated. Dinner is usually scheduled for after 8pm – so, a warning to all British and American visitors, if you’re looking for a restaurant to serve you dinner at 6pm, you won’t find it. Instead, this is reserved for apéro, essentially the French for ‘snack time’. Nursing glasses of wine, friends can chat over a planche (board) of charcuterie and cheese. (Check out my guide to French meals, plus where to eat them where I live in Toulouse.)
It’s taken me two years (two whole years) to become accustomed to the enigma of French eating, not just the change in meal times but also the amount of cheese and meat included in their diets (not that it’s been a challenge, oh no, there’s just crippling guilt for all the saturated fat that passes these lips), and I must say charcuterie boards have really helped the adjustment.
But, down to business – how to make the best charcuterie board
There are many occasions where we all crave a platter of cheese and meats, Christmas for one, or just a regular Friday night. There are a few essential elements to every planche and these are the cheese, the charcuterie and the bread.
As someone who is partial to a cheeseboard, or – let’s just go all out – a cheese and wine night with a table groaning under cheese varieties and crackers, I worship the cheese on any charcuterie board. Plus, this a tribute to the French charcuterie and cheese board, and where else in the world is the capital of fromage with its rumoured 1,600 national cheeses?
When selecting your preferred cheese, always buy artisan varieties – look for AOC or AOP on the label – and it’s best to group your options into categories, for instance:
Since arriving on France’s shores, I’ve become a lover of the hard cheese Comte. Sold by age whether it’s five, 10 or 20 years old, Comte is smooth and creamy, sometimes full of those salty cheese crystals that crunch with every bite. Another favourite is Abondance, another buttery flavoured cheese.
Besides Brie and Camembert which are soft cheese icons, there are endless further varieties of soft or semi-soft cheese to try, some more pungent than others! A word regularly used for soft cheese is ‘ripe’. While negatively associated with smell, it also means youth. Try Reblochon, a semi-soft cheese used for tartiflette, or, if you’re feeling daring, Vieux Boulogne, which was announced as the world’s smelliest cheese.
Coming in both hard and soft varieties, goat’s cheese offers a creamy tang to the charcuterie board, and can either be eaten in slices or spread over chunks of baguette. Try Picodon, a round of smooth crumbly cheese, or Le Chevrot, firm yet creamy with an aged, wrinkled rind. As a lover of goat’s cheese, my charcuterie board included two – a hard cheese aged in pressed grapes (marc) for a fruity, ripe flavour, and a two-tone soft goat’s cheese sandwiching a creamy cow’s cheese in the middle.
Ever the polarising figure, blue cheese triggers mixed reactions. The milder end of the spectrum such as Bleu de Bresse will appeal to even blue cheese sceptics, whereas the opposing sharp and funky Roquefort made from sheep’s milk will be reserved just for those who love it (along with a handy bag to put over your head as you eat).
At a minimum aim to balance the board with three cheeses, and adjust the quantities according to your number of guests.
Meat is the pumping heart of French culture, and by now, I’ve grown accustomed to the laden platter of meat which emerges at Christmas, and the duck, the sausage, the foie gras, the general meatiness of the south of France and in Toulouse. A snack for me back when excess meat was not a concern for my diet would have been a pot of dip and a nice supply of crackers. Now it’s slice after paper-thin slice of saucisson, eaten like crisps from a packet.
Each of the following categories can be divided into sub-sections, but I’ve attempted to keep things simple otherwise you’ll be reading this all day.
This dried, salted and aged sausage is uniquely French – there are even aisles in the supermarket solely for the sale of saucisson, all smartly lined up in rows of snowy white sticks. Each region makes their own saucisson according to the terroir (the food and produce of the area), and the flavours range from salty to funky, some seasoned with spices or nuts. All are melt-in-the-mouth fatty though and delicious when layered on baguette with a little sweet butter.
Cured or cooked, ham (or jambon) is an essential addition to any charcuterie board. Naturally there are numerous varieties including jambon cuits or blanc (cooked hams), jambon cru (young salted hams), jambon sec (aged salted hams) and jambon fumé (smoked ham). Jambon de Bayonne is a French alternative to Italian parma ham, a jambon cru, and is a rich dark meat from its extensive salting and maturing, marbled with fat.
Rillettes or pâté
Soft charcuterie is an odd phrase, but it literally means what it says. Pâté after all is French for ‘paste’, and amongst all these firm, chewy textures, it’s pleasant to balance the charcuterie board with some salty spreadables. My favourite is pork rillettes, shredded pork nestled under a layer of fat and squashed into a soft terrine.
You’ve been warned – you can’t prepare a low-calorie charcuterie board.
Bread and Extras
It goes without saying that for a French charcuterie board, baguette should be the vehicle of choice. Rip off a hunk, spread with creamy goat’s cheese or pile with ham. There’s no need for crackers or bread sticks if you have a good crusty baguette within reach.
To balance the rich, fatty flavours on the charcuterie board, optional extras are added as refreshing palate cleansers. These can include fruit, pickles, chutneys, jams and honey, all adding notes of sweetness to balance the savoury meat and cheese.
Cheeseboards are famous for including a bunch of grapes tumbled like heavy rosary beads, but you can also chop up figs, apples or stone fruits such as nectarines, peaches or plums.
There’s nothing better to strip the fat from your mouth than a mouth-puckering pickle, and a classic French pickle is the cornichon. You could also add a pile of my pretty pink pickled onion slices or chunky dill pickles for a satisfactory crunch.
Now condiments feel particularly fancy don’t they, and they are a particular favourite for those of us who love combinations of sweet and savoury. Cherry or apricot jams work well, as does honey or big chunks of honeycomb.
Finally, the non-negotiable extra, creamy sweet butter. There is enough salt on the board to cover your next three meals, so keep the butter unsalted to balance the other rich flavours.
There is no wrong way to make a great French charcuterie board, if all you want is a platter of blue cheese then you do you (although you might not have any guests). All that’s required is an even balance of flavours and textures to keep you and your friends eating!