When it comes to charcuterie boards, the French don’t play games. Charcuterie—an assemblage of meat, cheese, spreads, bread, olives, dried fruit, and nuts all arranged on a wood plank—isn’t just something that can be thrown together at random. Once I started dating my French boyfriend, I learned that the charcuterie board is, in fact, an art form.
From ingredients to serving techniques, there’s definitely a way to make a charcuterie board right, according to the French. While the final result may have a sense of effortlessness, it does, in fact, take a bit of effort to achieve that je ne sais quoi. Here’s how to make a charcuterie board any French person would approve of.
Use a Wood Cutting Board
“Marble [cutting boards] are way too posh,” says Louise Pila, a French foodie from the Loire Valley. They’re definitely more of an American trend, she says, and if you want to keep it authentically French, a wood board is the best way to go. They’re easier to use, easier to wash, and you don’t have to worry about scratching them with a knife.
Serve at Least Four Different Kinds of Cheeses
In general, you should always try to include a tangy option ( for example, goat cheese), something soft and creamy (Brie or Camembert), something hard (Comté or Cheddar), and something strong enough to knock your socks off (blue cheese), says Tose Riesser, owner of Two and Two, a French-Japanese café in Berlin.
You don’t necessarily have to stick to just French cheese, though. Solène Roussel, food stylist and blogger at In the Mood for Food, loves to throw a bit of Parmesan on her plate, and Pila will even include burrata from time to time. At the end of the day, though, feel free to use whatever kind of cheese you like. If you find something you love, but it doesn’t fit neatly into one of these categories, that’s totally fine, too.
Get Your Hands on Some Saucisson
If you want your board to be as French as possible, saucisson—a dry, thick, cured sausage—is the only meat you absolutely need to have, according to Pila. Saucisson is made of pork and stuffed with nuts, cheese, and dried fruit.
The other meats that you include are totally up to your preference. You can include whatever you want, even if it’s not from France. Pila is a sucker for Italian ham like prosciutto or bresaola, and Roussel is a fan of Viande de Grisons, a type of cured beef.
Slice the Right Way
“You absolutely don’t have to preslice the cheese you put on your charcuterie board if you’d rather not do the extra work,” says Roussel. But if you do, know that each different variety has to be cut in a very specific way. Soft, round cheeses like Brie will ooze everywhere once you cut into them, so it’s best to serve them still inside of their packaging. Simply submerge the knife into the cheese but don’t actually cut a slice—leave it there for your guests to get started. Hard cheeses like Comté or Cheddar can be cut into long, thin strips or cubes.
As for everything else, leaving it uncut will keep the cheese fresher and make it easier to pack up for later, says Pila. Plus, she finds that her guests enjoy themselves more when they do the cutting themselves.
Unlike cheese, meat should always be presliced before serving, and the thinner it is, the better. “I love when the slices are ultra-thin,” says Pila. “You enjoy the flavors more fully, especially when the meat is high quality.” Have your butcher do the slicing to guarantee it’s as thin as possible, or buy presliced if you don’t have easy access to a butcher. The only exception to this is saucisson, which is never sold presliced, but is pretty easy to chop yourself—plus, it gets greasy if exposed to air for too long. Make sure that each piece is 2 millimeters wide, otherwise it will be too big to comfortably chew, Roussel recommends.
Don’t Forget the Extras
Whenever possible, my boyfriend recommends using as many seasonal and local products on your board as you can. If it’s spring, fill any empty spaces with spring veggies like radishes, and if it’s summer, add in some tomatoes. Pickled and preserved ingredients such as olives, cornichons, and even tapenade balance out the creaminess of cheese with their acidity. Plus, the experts all agree: A few sweets, like honey or cherry preserves, are essential. A handful of dried figs or apricots also provide a sweet and tangy contrast to all the richness on the board.
Always Serve Everything With Bread—Not Crackers
If you serve crackers with a charcuterie board, it isn’t French, according to Pila. The types of bread you should use vary, though. A baguette is the best option, but Roussel also recommends a good sourdough or walnut bread if you feel like mixing it up. Be sure to preslice it before serving your guests—they’ll be too busy chopping cheese to worry about bread.
Let the Cheese Rest
Prep your charcuterie board ahead of time to ensure guests enjoy it at the right temperature. “Don’t take the cheese from the fridge right before eating it,” says Roussel. “Let it rest for 30 minutes to an hour to allow it to come to temperature. The flavors will be much stronger.”
Give Each Person Their Own Knife
According to my boyfriend, every guest should have their own knife to eat with. This is a very strict rule in France (which I learned the hard way after serving a charcuterie board without knives at his most recent birthday party). This way, no one has to wait for their turn to dig into the cheese they want.
Get a Little Messy
When it comes to making a beautiful charcuterie board, messy is best, according to Riesser. Start by placing the cheese on the board first, then go to town. Try making prosciutto roses if you want to get fancy, but don’t feel like you have to. Even if you don’t try, all that meat and cheese is going to look delicious no matter what.