'Charcuterie Renaissance' in Waterloo region, says food columnist Andrew Coppolino

Something about the pandemic has people ordering or laying out their DIY charcuterie platters. Food columnist Andrew Coppolino looks at what makes a good one.

Whether you buy it or DIY it, charcuterie is a dish to share in your bubble

Charcuterie is essentially the craft of preparing meats — especially pork — for presentation in interesting and different ways. Conestoga College students, seen here, learn the basics of the craft in its culinary programs. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

It seems that there is a "charcuterie Renaissance" among our area's food businesses.

More than cold cuts and cheese slices, the charcuterie board can be both an appetizer or a main course. During the pandemic, with dining rooms closed, charcuterie boards have evolved into boxes for curbside pickup and delivery.

Usually meat and cheese, plus a bread or crackers, sauces and condiments (pepper jelly and grainy mustard are popular), and a pickle (red onions or cornichons fit the bill there), the charcuterie board has had its definition somewhat expanded.

Pork history

Technically, charcuterie is essentially the craft of preserving and preparing meats — especially pork — for presentation in interesting and different ways, from slices to creamy pâtés.

Historically, the techniques pre-date refrigeration — and long before — when humans sought ways of preserving meat so that it wouldn't kill them when eaten much later.

In the age of Medieval guilds, a craftsman had to be licensed to prepare and sell, specifically, pork. More recently, in the formal restaurant kitchen brigade there was a roasting chef, a sauce chef, a pastry chef and a "charcutier" who was responsible for the pork-based preparations.

While that position isn't found today, even in the largest restaurant kitchens, a growing interest in charcuterie certainly is. Conestoga College teaches the basics of the craft in its culinary programs, and Meat and Poultry Ontario, an industry association, holds a charcuterie competition every couple of years.

The process takes skill and time, and very few restaurants can afford it. A shoulder cut that makes capacollo or prosciutto is a matter of curing over time, but making salami or soppressata that use ground pork requires more skill and their preparation stages require many more food-safety steps. Needless to say, most of what we enjoy at local restaurants is commercially produced rather than made in-house. 

A charcuterie board can be both an appetizer or a main course. During the pandemic, with dining rooms closed, charcuterie boards have evolved into boxes for curbside pickup and delivery. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

Pickup, takeout

While it's a favourite pandemic pastime for home cooks to assemble charcuterie boards, many restaurants and catering companies now have charcuterie on the pickup menu.

Here are a few examples, by no means a comprehensive list:

La Cucina has "salumi e formaggi:" prosciutto and other meats, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, olives and toasted bread.

The Bauer Kitchen prepares an antipasto plate ("before the meal" in Italian):  locally-sourced artisan meats, potted truffle pâté, Mountainoak Gouda from New Hamburg, pickles, grainy mustard, assorted crisps.

An early adopter of the charcuterie board offering, pre-COVID-19, Swine and Vine offers a couple of boxes, while in Belmont Village Wilhelm's Cafe + Bar has two selections, including a combo with a bottle of wine.

White Rabbit in uptown Waterloo sells a charcuterie selection, in a collaboration with Swine and Vine.

Located in the village of Blair, Cambridge, The Easy Pour Wine Bar has a meat and cheese platter, while in Hespeler, The Aging Oak Tapas Bar has a selection of three boxes.

Specialty food stores also offer them. Vincenzo's in Waterloo puts together premium charcuterie selections, as does Trotter's Butcher Shop in Guelph.

Cheese shops have packages, too: C'est Cheese Please! in Cambridge and La Fromagerie on Lexington in Waterloo, for example.

"I think charcuterie has been growing for the last few years. They give people choices, and I'm often seeing our boards given as gifts," said Cindy Sellner, La Fromagerie owner. 

Even grocery stores from Zehr's to Farm Boy have pre-packaged examples for sale.

Many people are trying DIY charcuterie boards. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

Vegan options, too

Area catering companies make up a large component of charcuterie sales, including Little Mushroom Catering in Cambridge.

As well, check online for what The Grazing Table has on its menu — it includes hand-held individual items referred to as "Char-Cones." 

Little Louie's–Lily Ruth Catering in Cambridge is preparing to add them to their menu; they've had large corporate orders, according to chef and co-owner Steve Allen (who also teaches the craft at Conestoga College).

"We started doing them back in September when a client wanted 200 of them for a socially-distanced Zoom meeting with staff," Allen said.

Both Oh Graze and La Lola Catering are based in Cambridge; the latter's charcutería features Spanish ingredients, including interesting (and delicious) quince jam.

Even a niche like charcuterie has its own sub-niche: Gather and Graze, a charcuterie box specialist, sells a "Vegan Graze Box" with locally-made plant-based "cheeses," falafel, rice-stuffed dolmas, vegan crackers, nuts, olives and gherkins, dried fruit and roasted-beet hummus.

While it can't be charcuterie in the purest sense of the term if it doesn't include pork, that's an example of how food and food terminology has evolved to meet market demand and changing culture, pandemic or not.