No doubt you’ve heard the word “charcuterie” tossed around, but what is charcuterie? It’s more than just a fancy platter of charcuterie meats and cheese – it’s a culinary tradition with a rich history dating back thousands of years. In this blog post, we’ll explore the ancient origins of charcuterie and its four interrelated definitions, which may surprise you.
What is charcuterie?
When most people hear the word “charcuterie,” what comes to mind first are usually images of meat, cheese, fruits and bread or crackers artfully arranged on a large charcuterie board. But the reality is that charcuterie is actually a much broader term that encompasses four things at once.
You might be interested in reading about Charcuterie Board 101: Tips for making the perfect snack or party platter
Before we dive into the four different definitions of charcuterie, let’s talk about the origins of charcuterie.
Is Charcuterie French, Italian or something else?
The answer is a little more complicated than saying charcuterie is French or Italian, so bear with me, and you’ll understand why.
Before France or Italy even existed, humans preserved meat, fish, cheese and even vegetables for thousands of years, using various techniques such as curing with salt, air drying, smoking, fermenting, and pickling to preserve food that could not be kept fresh to prevent spoilage.
All these methods were developed out of necessity as a survival technique in a time when resources were scarce and refrigeration didn’t exist.
Evidence of these practices can be found in many ancient civilizations and cultures throughout history.
- The ancient Egyptians preserved fish and meat using a combination of salting and drying.
- The Vikings, who lived in what is now Scandinavia, preserved fish using a technique called “gravlax.” This involved rubbing fish with a mixture of salt, sugar, and dill and then burying it in the ground for several days.
- For thousands of years, the Chinese have relied on fermentation to preserve foods, such as tofu, pickling vegetables and salting and drying meat and fish.
- The Romans also preserved meat using salt as a natural method to prevent meat spoilage, a process they called “salsīcius,” Latin for “prepared with salt.”
Around the 15th century, things took a bit of a turn for preserved meat techniques when the French, alongside the Italians, borrowed and refined the Roman technique of curing meat, each creating their own distinct Italian and French styles and flavours.
It’s these two styles that most of the world is familiar with when it comes to a board of meats and cheeses.
Charcuterie is French, and Salumi is Italian
In France, preserved meats became known as charcuterie, from the compound French word “Charcuite” (“chair” meaning “flesh” or “meat) and “cuit,” meaning “cooked.)
Over time, through a process called “linguistic evolution,” the meaning and the spelling of the medieval French word “charcuite” changed. The second letter, “I,” was dropped, and the suffix “-erie” was added, and the modern word became “charcuterie,” which is still used today.
On the other hand, the Italian term for preserved meats is “Salumi,” which originates from the Roman Latin word “salumen,” meaning “salted meat.”
Definition of charcuterie
The term charcuterie has 4 interrelated meanings. Let’s briefly go over them.
1) Defining Charcuterie: The cured & cooked meat and prepared food products
The definition of charcuterie most people are familiar with is sliced charcuterie meat, like cold cuts, that’s been cured or cooked and is usually served cold on sandwiches, salads, on a French charcuterie board or as part of a meal, such as the French raclette meal.
But in France, what’s considered a “charcuterie” product is generally broader than what is considered a charcuterie in other countries.
Charcuterie in France can include not only cured and cooked meat products but also a variety of different meat, vegetable, poultry, seafood and prepared food products.
- Cured meats: such as dry sausage (saucisson sec) and smoked sausages.
- Cooked meat products:
- Sausages: raw, which you cook at home
- Pastry charcuterie: usually meat in a pastry crust.
- Poultry: Duck, chicken, etc.
- Potted meats: Such as rillettes
- Paté: Usually made of liver, very spreadable.
- Prepared fish or shellfish:
- Meat, seafood and vegetable terrines: Usually cooked in a loaf-shaped pan and sliceable
There is a lot of overlap between charcuterie, charcuterie and cold cuts, which are often used interchangeably.
|Type of Meat||Definition||Examples|
|Cured meats||Preserved by salting, drying, fermenting, smoking, or a combination.
Typically left cure and age over time.
Served sliced and cold.
|Salami, pâté, prociutto|
|Preserved Meat||All cured meats are preserved, but not vice versa.||Jerkey, canned tuna, salami.|
|Deli Meats||Cooked and preserved meats are typically sold at a deli counter||Whole sausage, sliced sausage|
|Cold Cuts/Sandwich meat||Cured or cooked meats that are sliced||Salami, bologna, roast beef|
If you want to learn more about French charcuterie meats, you should read French charcuterie board meats explained: For beginners.
Other types of charcuterie meat for hot dishes
While many Charcuterie products are sliced and served cold, they can also be used in hot dishes, served whole. Duck confit, for example, is a duck leg charcuterie which is preserved by slowly cooking and then storing the duck in its own fat and served whole or as part of a dish like Cassoulet, a traditional French stew (pictured below.)
2) Defining Charcuterie: The Shop
In France, the term “Charcuterie” refers to a type of shop that specializes in selling cured and cooked charcuterie meats. These charcuterie shops often offer a wide variety of different meats, cheeses, and other prepared foods and may also sell wine and other beverages.
In French, the suffix “-erie” is used to form nouns for an art, craft, profession or practice. For example, French pastries and the pastry shop they are sold in are called a pattiserie. Similarly, “charcuterie” refers to a shop or a place where charcuterie meats are sold or prepared.
A charcuterie is different than a boucherie (butcher). You buy fresh meats, such as raw lamb, raw hamburger meat, raw steak, raw chicken, veal etc.
The closest thing to a charcuterie shop in the English language would be a deli (delicatessen shop), and although they are very similar, the word charcuterie is broader; a delicatessen would fall under a charcuterie shop.
You might be interested in reading: Pocket dictionary: 200+ types of French shop names in France, businesses, and services too
3) Defining Charcuterie: The art of preparing charcuterie
Charcuterie falls into the family of catering trades.
In addition to ready-to-eat charcuterie products and charcuterie shops, the term charcuterie also refers to a branch of French cooking that includes the art of preparing charcuterie.
These individuals are often highly skilled and have a deep understanding of the different methods and techniques used to make these prepared and ready-to-eat charcuterie products.
In some cases, charcuterie preparers may work in charcuterie shops, while in others, they may work in restaurants or other food-related businesses. Regardless of where they work, these individuals play a critical role in ensuring that the meat is cured and preserved properly and that it has the right flavour and texture.
4) Defining Charcuterie: The Board
And lastly, Charcuterie also refers to the charcuterie platter and the things you put on the platter.
Purists might argue that a charcuterie board should only have charcuterie meat; however, the term “charcuterie board” has become broader, and it’s widely accepted that charcuterie boards also can feature a variety of cheeses, fruits, nuts, vegetables and other complementary items such as spreads.
But again, it’s all open for interpretation. Call it a party platter, snack platter, appetizer platter, or charcuterie and
What’s the difference between an antipasti platter and a charcuterie platter
The French have the charcuterie board, but the Italians call their platter an antipasti platter.
Antipasti platters and charcuterie platters are similar. While both platters may include some similar ingredients, the focus and presentation are different.
An Italian antipasto platter can include a variety of cold cuts, Italian cheeses, marinated vegetables, olives, and other finger foods. It can also include items like bruschetta, crostini, and breadsticks, melons wrapped in prosciutto. The cheeses tend to be different, also.
A French charcuterie platter also features a variety of cured meats but will also include pâtés, terrines, cheeses and accompaniments. It is often served on a wooden board or platter, and the emphasis is on meats and meat-based preparations.
Both the antipasti platter and charcuterie board are typically served as a prelude to a meal or as a shared appetizer, and are a popular choice for entertaining guests or for enjoying a casual meal with friends and family. In France, it’s especially popular during the French apero.
What is a Vegetable charcuterie platter? (plateau de charcuteries végétales / végan /végétalien)
With the rise of vegetarianism and veganism, a new trend has emerged: “the vegetable charcuterie board,” which is basically the art of preparing and presenting alternatives to meat-based Charcuterie.
The charcuterie terms used to describe these vegan or vegetarian charcuterie boards include “vegetarian snack board,” “vegan snack board,” and “vegan appetizer platter,” to name a few.
A vegetable charcuterie board can include anything from marinated and grilled vegetables to roasted nuts and various spreads and dips.
In France, there is now a growing selection of vegan charcuterie products designed to imitate the taste and appearance of traditional Charcuterie, such as “faux-gras” (vegan version of “foie-gras”), plant-based meats, sausages and nut-based cheeses using artisanal cheese-making techniques.
Wrapping up the meaning of charcuterie
While charcuterie is a French term and Salumi is an Italian one, they both refer to the art of preserving and preparing meats and various food for consumption and are considered a part of the culinary traditions in both cultures.
These party platters have become increasingly popular in recent years, both in restaurants and at home.
They offer a unique way to enjoy a variety of different flavours and textures, and they can be customized to suit a wide range of different tastes and preferences.