By Bella Butler
My mother, Nancy Butler, owns a local catering business called the Gourmet Gals. Growing up, I never had a dull meal, but it wasn’t always the same for her. She was raised, in part, with three other siblings by a young single mother. My mom remembers eating tuna casserole in dingy apartments with no furniture. But her mom, my grandmother, never failed to incorporate some magical ingredient from the pantry to make each meal taste well beyond the family’s means. My mom embodies this skill, taking ordinary on-hand items and transforming them into culinary treats, more than anyone I know, and I think it’s what’s made her such a great teacher. What she pulls from her oven are masterpieces, but her process is entirely attainable. One of the best examples of this is the charcuterie board.
Charcuterie is a presentation of assorted meats and cheeses. The word has French roots, but the dish has recently popularized in the States. Though the intricate boards often served at wine bars can at first look intimidating, a few simple tricks (and key ingredients) will have you serving charcuterie for at-home date nights, dinner parties or my favorite way to enjoy—a solo night in (I think we’ve all been able to shed the binaries this year. I can, indeed, enjoy a classy meat and cheese board and glass of wine in my pajamas). It’s important to remember that this guidance, borrowed from my mother, is a mere frame. The fun of the charcuterie board is making it your own!
For many of us, cheese is the star of the show and should be treated as such. Cheese is a great place to start and to understand one of the key principles of charcuterie—texture. My mom believes three kinds of cheeses are the foundation of any good board: One creamy, like a Camembert or a goat brie; one blue-veined, like a gorgonzola or Stilton; and one aged, like a sharp cheddar or even a Gruyere. You can find a version of these in most grocery stores, but Montana is also home to five spectacular fromagers, or cheesemakers, that produce a variety of specialties and are worth a visit for sampling, tours and a little cheese education.
If you prefer a simple cheeseboard, meats are not necessary but can be a rich addition. Farmers markets are a great way to find local artisanal meats and support neighbor operations. You also get the unique benefit of meeting an expert. In my experience, these vendors are more than happy to discuss their product and oftentimes will offer advice on how to pair your meats with other board accompaniments. My mom loves the duck prosciutto from Grotto meats in Bozeman. If you’re on a budget, a packet of salami or other aged meats will do just fine.
This is where that magical improvisation comes in. My mom and I often dig into the dark corners of the pantry and refrigerator to find things like pickles, dips, fruits and other small pieces to bring texture and color to the board. My most recent creation featured curry pickled carrots and olives and grapes. My mom is a big fan of adding honeycomb and sometimes travels to Livingston to purchase a chunk of the delicacy from a schoolteacher who raises bees and chickens with French names. I go to the grocery store. While not essential, I always like to include a delivery method like crackers. Try options that are fun but not overwhelming, like the Raincoast Crisps sold at most stores.
If you have a good artist’s eye, stop here—you’ll do just fine. For the rest of us, this can be where we flail. You now have a collection of diverse items. How do you present them? Play with it a little—not a lot, nobody wants your hands all over their food. If you have a nice wooden board, that will enhance the overall aesthetic, but any on-hand cutting board will do. I start with the cheese, placing them in different corners of the board. From there, fill in empty spaces with meat. If you have a salami log, don’t place in the center where it will be difficult to cut. Use that space for something like a hummus or bowl of pickles that can easily be grabbed. I like to cut a slice or two of salami so the inside shows. To finish it off, lay out the extras on empty surfaces, separating them so that something like a cashew could be picked up from either end of the board. Crackers are great for lining pathways between ingredients.
The magic of the charcuterie is not the individual items but the way they come together. To elevate this marriage, bring wine into the party. If you’re buying from a wine shop or even a grocery store, you can often seek advice from attendants to help pair with your board.