The first rule of today’s charcuterie boards is: There are no rules.

Now, purists will contend that anything aligning itself with the name “charcuterie” must be true to the French origins of the term, which loosely translates as “cooked flesh.” To the most prosciutto-pious, only cured and smoked meats deserve to be sliced and displayed on a well-oiled wooden plank or cutting board. Begrudgingly, they’ll allow a ramekin of grainy mustard, a few cornichons, and perhaps an almond or two.

But cheese? Unthinkable.

Start loading up a board with ductile clouds of young goat cheese, savory wedges of Gouda or oozy triple-cream Brie, and, to some, you’ve moved from charcuterie to “meat-and-cheese board,” or more calamitously, antipasto. And let’s not even touch on the question of allowing olives, jams, crackers or baguette slices anywhere near the dish.

A meat-and-cheese board at Friends & Family, a new wine bar on Congress Street in Portland. Photo by Will Russell

Cecily Upton, co-owner of Portland’s Friends & Family, a new wine bar on Congress Street, has thought through the semantics of charcuterie more than most people. Her restaurant’s boards ($12-$26) reflect Upton’s measured approach to the issue: “You never know how emotional people are going to be about the question of what counts, so I try not to weigh in too heavily. To me, ‘charcuterie’ means cured meats, but even that’s not completely clear, because the word is French, yet salami itself is Italian,” she said. “So we refer to them as ‘meat-and-cheese’ boards, but all that really matters is that people understand what they are getting.”

If the now-trendy boards appearing with increasing frequency on menus across southern Maine are any indication, what customers are getting is full. No matter what you call them, charcuterie boards are all about abundance. And in a phase of the pandemic where you might have to wait months for lumber, a new car or a snowblower, there is something reassuring in being presented with an edible, over-the-top display of bounty.

But don’t let that mislead you: Charcuterie boards aren’t for the selfish. “The real purpose behind a board is to create a social environment where you can have a good time and snack,” said Travis Kern, co-owner of Biddeford cheese shop Nibblesford. “When you get down to it, that’s why I’m OK with putting cheese, pickles, and whatnot on there. It’s a thing that should be about people coming together and having a good time. It’s about making people feel included.”

At the compact store where Kern and his business partner (and brother) Ian Kern sell a host of specialty snack foods from across Maine and New England, there is an important social component to imagining – and assembling – one of their mammoth meat-and-cheese platters ($95-$280).

A spread put together by Biddeford cheese shop Nibblesford. Photo courtesy of Nibblesford

“We really have to have a conversation with whoever is ordering from us. We have to ask, ‘OK, what do you like to eat? Are there people who can’t have cow’s cheese because of lactose problems?’ etcetera,” Travis Kern said. “For us, it’s like making a mix tape for somebody. You can’t make a mix tape of only the things that you like; you have to make it with the songs that the person you’re making it for would like. You always have to ask, ‘I know I like this fantastic jam, awesome peppadew peppers or meat, but would this make the other person happy?’ ”

Indeed, it’s easy to think of a well-constructed 21st century charcuterie board as a recommendation algorithm for cured meats and cheeses. Set a few artfully composed photos of your favorite platter loose on Instagram, and you might even inspire people you’ve never met to taste your favorite brand of bresaola.

How do I know? Well, apart from enjoying one of Charcutemarie’s thoughtfully composed charcuterie trays ($55-$115 with free delivery within 15 miles of the company’s headquarters in Saco), I’ve borrowed more than a few design ideas from founder Marie Grasser’s Instagram feed. On it, she proves that she’s a master of scale and shape, deploying unexpected elements like split pomegranates, buff-colored macarons, and yes, even a pyrotechnic sparkler to liven up the art of charcuterie.

You won’t find any fireworks at The Portland Board, a charcuterie food truck that operates out of a retrofitted powder-blue Volkswagen bus, but owner Graham Young shares Charcutemarie’s flair for originality. Each of Young’s boards ($18-$25) starts with a branded, maple-wood plank, and that’s where the similarity ends.

A meat-and-cheese board inside The Portland Board food trcuk parked at Root Wild Kombuchery in Portland. Photo courtesy of The Portland Board

“I don’t have a template to look at. Every board is unique and different from the last one, and I think that uniqueness adds to the experience,” he said. “Three meats, three cheeses (or house-made vegan alternatives) and two pairings like jars of honeycomb, or blueberry-sage jam or pickled vegetables. Just whatever is fresh at the farmers market: It’s always changing. I like the freedom to do whatever with a variety of flavor profiles. You’ll always get some things you might not have tried before.”

This season feels like the perfect time to explore charcuterie, either by visiting any of the board-specialists mentioned here (all four plan to remain open throughout the winter) or by trying your hand at composing a board of your own. My best advice is to heed Upton’s guidance: “Find some fun flavors you like without breaking the bank. You can create something satisfying without buying pounds of meats and cheese. Just start small until you find what you like.”

And if you still need a little help figuring out what to include, I’ve assembled a list of some of my favorite (mostly) locally sourced nibbles – ingredients I turn to when I’m in a charcuterie state-of-mind.

– Golden wheat Krisproll crackers ($6) and tangy, stone-fruit-esque cloudberry preserves ($16) from Simply Scandinavian in Portland

– “Cheese Orphans,” inexpensive offcuts and ends from some of the world’s finest cheeses (prices vary, but these are always a fantastic bargain), and acorn-fed Jamon Iberico de Bellota ($15/2-ounce portion, about a dozen thin slices) from The Cheese Iron in Scarborough

– Spreadable, funky Pig and Fig Terrine ($16.50), Urfa-biber-spiced Meat Crafters’ Ararat Salami ($14), and a box of Maine Crisp Co.’s gluten-free blueberry walnut crackers ($8.50) from Part & Parcel in Biddeford

– Tangy dilly bean pickles ($5) and Provencal-inspired house-marinated olives ($9) from Big Tree Grocery in Biddeford

– Grindstone Neck of Maine smoked Gulf of Maine shrimp ($12.50/6 ounces) from SoPo Seafood in South Portland

– Fresh black Mission figs ($5.99) and tart, spreadable Italian Robiolina cheese ($7.99) from Monte’s Fine Foods in Portland

– Espinaler anchovy-stuffed green olives ($5.99) and a wedge of firm, Savoie-style Pleasant Ridge Reserve Wisconsin cow’s milk cheese ($7.50/quarter lb.) from The Cheese Shop of Portland

– Camembert-style, soft-ripened plant-based cheese made by Rind in Brooklyn, New York ($10.99 /approximately 4-ounce wedge, available online from veganessentials.com)

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of five recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association. Contact him at: [email protected]
Twitter: @AndrewRossME


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