Over the last few years, charcuterie-style meat and cheese boards have dominated the social media scene. Originating from 15th-century France, charcuterie refers to the practice of preparing cured meat. Today, charcuterie boards are a mainstay for dinner parties and gatherings and have evolved to include cheeses, fruits, nuts, and more.
There are no hard and fast rules to making a charcuterie-style meat and cheese board — ultimately, it comes down to personal preference. With unlimited combinations and possibilities, however, it can be overwhelming to know where to start. We spoke to local cheese and charcuterie experts, who gave us some tips for building the ultimate cheese and charcuterie board.
When it comes to deciding what cheeses to serve on a board, you’ll want to give your guests a choice between a variety of textures, flavor profiles, and milks.
Luckily, the North Fork is home to several cheese shops that offer a wide selection of imported and local cheeses.
Leah Tillman is one of several food artists that craft cheese and charcuterie boards at The Village Cheese Shoppe in Mattituck. When selecting cheeses, she first considers the size of the gathering and the guests’ palates. For the smallest sized board, she’ll select four cheeses. Other times, customers will request cheese for huge, table-sized boards.
“Most customers allow us to choose the selection of cheeses, because they trust us to put a nice variety of cheeses on there,” she said. “But we do ask our clients… ‘What would you love to see on there? What do you absolutely not want to see on there?’”
Based on the comfort level of the group, she puts together a mix of hard and soft cheeses derived from different animals. For a group with mixed tastes, she’ll avoid the stinky blues and go for crowd-pleasers like rosemary Manchego, aged cow’s milk gouda, and Drunken Goat Cheese. “If we have a more adventurous group, and they’re acknowledged foodies, then we can have a little bit more fun and can put some more esoteric and pungent cheeses on there,” explained Tillman.
Michael Affatato, owner of The Village Cheese Shop, prefers more pungent cheeses like Mont d’Or — an earthy, creamy cow’s milk cheese that has the consistency of fondue. His current favorite is a strong Vermont-based cheese called Willoughby, which is described as having aromas of peat, roasted beef, and onions.
At Kate’s Cheese Co. in Greenport, Owner Kate McDowell separates popular cheeses from unique picks with “Classic” and “Get Fancy” cheese menus. On the “Classic” menu, McDowell offers cheeses that are similar to Tillman’s crowd pleasers — Drunken Goat Cheese, Manchego, mature gouda, triple creme brie, and maple smoked cheddar.
“These classic cheeses are what I would consider safe cheeses — everyone’s gonna like them,” said McDowell. “The regulars that come in all the time, I try to expand their palates.” On the ‘Get Fancy’ menu, McDowell says customers can choose between more “interesting cheeses”, like whiskey-aged cheddar and Moliterno al Tartufo — an Italian stretched-curd cheese infused with truffle.
At Cheese and Spice Market in Wading River, owner Patty Kaczmarczyk says a popular pick is the Beemster OX, a crumbly and salty aged gouda with a hint of caramel sweetness. One of her personal favorites includes a triple cream brie called Brillat Savarin. “That’s one of our best sellers as far as brie goes.”
Pairing with meat and other light bites
Once the cheeses are selected, meats and other light bites are incorporated into the charcuterie boards to bring them to life. Though each cheese shop owner has their own way of preparing the boards, they each add meats as well as some form of fruit.
At Cheese & Spice Market, Kaczmarczyk’s goal is to keep her boards simple. “The cheese is the star of the board, not the jazz,” she explained. In addition to fruits, cheeses, and meats, her boards typically include olives and pepper dews.
At The Village Cheese Shop and Kate’s Cheese Co., you’ll find boards topped with nuts, olives, and cornichons. “It’s not just about the fantastic cheese, you have to have the right accouterments as well,” said Kate McDowell, who also pairs her cheeses with homemade crostini. For holidays like Halloween, she likes to have fun with her accouterments, adding candy corn, dried apricot, and other pops of orange color to fit the theme.
McDowell and Affatato also recommend using Marcona almonds. Known as the “Queen of Almonds,” these crunchy nuts are imported from Spain and are softer and sweeter than the California variety that’s typically found in the US.
Jams, jellies, and honey are also popular cheese board add-ons, pairing especially well with soft cheeses.
“Any of the bries and the soft goat cheeses, they all taste good with honey or fig jam,” explained Tillman. “Aged cow’s milk gouda is particularly good with apple chutney.”
A lesser-known option — and one of Tillman’s favorites — is quince paste. Traditionally from the Iberian Peninsula, quince paste is a thick, sweet jelly made up of quince fruit. “It’s kind of a cousin between an apple and a pear,” explained Tillman. Resembling the texture of cranberry sauce, the sweet paste pairs well with semi-hard Spanish cheeses like Manchego.
When it comes to meats, the cheese experts advised picking a variety that most guests would enjoy. For a classic board, McDowell recommends traditional charcuterie meats like spicy Calabrese salami and dry Sopressata. For those with a more adventurous palate, she offers more unconventional meats like Wild Boar Salami and truffled mousse pate.
Assembling the board
Balance is key when it comes to assembling a charcuterie-style meat and cheese board. A common mistake, Kaczmarczyk explained, is sacrificing taste for visuals.
“It’s not just about putting all these fancy designs and things on there,” she said. “Are they functional? And do they taste good?”
“Put yourself in the place with the person who’s diving into it,” added Affatato. “If you were invited to someone’s house and they had a cheese platter, what would you want to see?” At his shop, food artists typically put whole cheeses, like brie, at the center of their boards. Next, they’ll add firmer cheeses, slicing them into long triangles. For cheeses with wax rinds like gouda, Tillman will cube the interior of the cheese and place it back into the rind so people can see what the cheese looks like.
“Try not to cut anything too thick, because people tend to like more surface area,” she said. “If a cheese is really soft, don’t do anything to it…the more you cut it, the more it will look mutilated chunk of cheese.”
Ultimately, the cheese experts agreed that there are no real strict rules when it comes to making a cheese board. “I don’t think you can really make a mistake on the board,” said McDowell. “It’s a matter of personal preference, and we respect that and get that.”