“Five years ago, everyone was making beer in their bathtubs,
and now everyone’s making charcuterie in their garage!”
~Brian Malarkey, Chef
When my friend Carlos, a punctilious polyglot conversant in four languages, asked what my Kim and I ate over the weekend, my poorly-pronounced beginner’s French response was “une assisette de charcuterie et de fromages.” “Oh, you had cold-cuts and cheese,” he responded. “No, we had charcuterie!” I emphasized, slowly pronouncing each syllable of the term: “char-cu-te-rie.” “Only the French,” he retorted “could convince you a plate of bologna and slices of cheese is a gourmet dish worth thirty dollars.” Carlos was only kidding, of course, but beyond his flippancy was a veiled challenge. He wanted me to figure out what distinguishes “charcuterie” from any other plate of cold-cuts and cheeses thrown together.
It could be argued that charcuterie’s historical roots extend hundreds of years back when early civilizations figured out how to cure and preserve meats. The term “charcuterie,” which is derived from the French words for flesh (chair) and cooked (cuit), finds its genesis in fifteenth-century France. Charcuterie was essentially born out of the necessity for foods to have a long shelf life. Because pork vendors were prohibited from selling uncooked pork, they very quickly, figured out unique (or refined existing) methods for preparing salting, drying and curing pork. The term charcuterie initially defined the shops that sold pork and offal (internal organs) products. Eventually charcuterie also came to mean the actual products themselves.
Charcutiers held an elevated status in the community. They were seen as skilled and valued craftsmen, admired widely for their methods of transforming and presenting meats in delicious manners. With the advent of meatloaves, sausages and different kinds of meats, fish and fowl, French methods began to expand across Europe. This resulted in bologna, salumi and mortadella in Italy, the frankfurter in Germany, kielbasa in Poland and more. Charcuterie-style techniques also made it to the United States where Virginia hams and other regional cured specialties were born. Contemporary American charcuterie commonly regards charcuterie as a delicatessen-style cured meat served with cheese, bread, pickled vegetables and spreads.
As a child, my charcuterie had a first name: O-S-C-A-R. My charcuterie had a second name: M-A-Y-E-R. And if you ask me why, I’ll say “because I didn’t have a clue.” Later on, festive events such as graduation parties often included trays of cold-cuts, most often including the charcuterie of my childhood. Still clueless! It wasn’t until the Air Force sent me to Europe that I discovered the true meaning of charcuterie. It was love at first bite, alas an unrequited love for upon my return to the fruited plain, charcuterie was nowhere to be found. Frequent visits to California where artisanal cheese plates were the rage would have to sustain me until the colonies developed a charcuterie culture of its own.
Thankfully in recent years, charcuterie has made its way across the fruited plain—even to the Land of Enchantment. Habitués of this blog have read my raves about the charcuterie plate at M’Tucci’s Market & Pizzeria where genius chefs Cory Gray and Shawn Cronin have made charcuterie an art form. This dynamic duo bakes all the breads for the restaurant, makes all its pastas and sausages, cures many of the meats served on the premises, makes many of the cheeses, leaps tall buildings in a single bound and otherwise creates some of the most inventive and delicious dishes in Albuquerque. Other eateries have proffered versions of a charcuterie board, but none have rivaled M’Tucci’s.
That’s pretty much what we expected when we learned of the launch of Salt and Board in the Bricklight District near the University of New Mexico in a 1,400-square-foot space previously occupied by the Brickyard Dive and next door to Rude Boy Cookies. True to its name, Salt and Board offers a charcuterie board showcasing the chef’s choice of three meats and cheeses, house jams, pickles, mustards and crostini. As at M’Tucci’s, Salt and Board is about much more than charcuterie. The menu includes salads, toasts and pressed sandwiches. Toasts? In recent years, open-faced toast has become a culinary fad with toast serving as the canvas for very creative and delicious toppings. The possibilities are endless.
There are three elements to a charcuterie board that make them so coveted and so special. Variety and deliciousness are the first two and most obvious elements. The third is mystery. There’s something exciting about not knowing what the chef will choose for you. It’s even better when you know that the next time you visit, your board will probably contain different meats and cheeses and they’ll all be mouth-watering. Salt and Board does not cure its own meats (the premises is just too small), but it does curate high quality products and presents them beautifully. The board delivered to our table was one of the most beautiful we’ve ever seen.
Where to start? How about the meats, a terrific triumvirate of textural and flavor contrasts? We started with the mortadella which, contrary to uninformed opinion, is not glorified bologna. Mortadella, an Italian pork sausage, is made of better ingredients and cured under more exacting and demanding standards. Next was Saucisson Sec, a French dry-cured pork sausage flavored with garlic and black pepper. It was superb! The biggest surprise was a rilette, a seasoned meat spread traditionally made with pork. It’s often called “poor man’s pate,” since it has the creamy, smooth consistency of pate, but it is far less costly. Salt and Pepper’s version is served in a steel ramekin. You have to break through about half an inch of melted bacon fat to get to the meat spread, but the combination of smoked bacon and cured meat flavors is dynamite.
When it comes to charcuterie, you want to have an assortment of mild, medium and bold flavors, preferably with different textures. The chef sent out fantastic fromage–three gems. First up was Funkmeister, a double-cream cow’s milk cheese with a washed rind (which is delicious). Made in Colorado from organic cow’s milk, Funkmeister has a soft texture, but a funky, pungent aroma and pleasant, savory flavor. It was my favorite. My Kim’s favorite was the Cana de Cabra, a soft-ripened cheese made from pasteurized goat’s milk, in Spain. It’s creamy, buttery, mild and delicious with the tart, earthy flavor we love. We both enjoyed the Alpine Cheddar, a light wedge of mild sharpness.
As delicious as the meats and cheeses are on their own, their flavors are heightened greatly by the house jams, pickles, mustards and crostini (not to mention the incomparable Spanish Marcona olives). My very favorite was an apricot mostarda, a sweet condiment made by softening the apricots in a sweetening brine tinged with mustard seeds for a terrific kick. A superb complement to the savory meats and cheeses was the fig jam, as good as we’ve had in the Duke City. Nearly as good was a sweet and savory onion jam which derives tanginess from some sort of vinegar and sweetness from a type of sugar. Whether spread on the crostini or enjoyed on their own, the jams, pickles and mustards are integral to the whole charcuterie board package.
Five pressed sandwiches grace the menu, each one an invitation to deliciousness. It’s a challenge to decide which to order. Ultimately you’ve got to figure that you try one now and come back some other time to try the others. Our choice, as it often is when presented with sandwich options, was the Italian (prosciutto, soppressata, ham, Grand Cru (a Wisconsin cheese made from cow’s milk), olive tapenade, house oil and vinegar). Solomon himself could not have made a better choice. Unlike so many pressed sandwiches (typically called panini), this one was not squashed down to within an inch of its life. Nor was the bread crust so abrasive that it scrapes the roof of your mouth like sandpaper. The Italian has a grilled consistency (maybe a light press) and is soft and tender with meats and cheese piled higher than on any pressed sandwich in memory. Moreover, it was a melding of magnificent ingredients.
Contemporaneous with the charcuterie craze is the artisanal toast fad. San Francisco made toast trendy in 2014 and there appears to be no surcease in the popularity of what was once just a breakfast side slathered in butter and (or) jam. Today toast is the canvas for an arsenal of creative options, limited only by the imagination of the chef. Where everyone from Gwyneth Paltrow to four-star chefs once extoled the virtues of avocado toast, today that seems passé. Under the menu heading “Toasts,” Salt and Board offers six different toast options, including the aforementioned avocado toast. Our choice, and perhaps the most imaginative one, was the chicken liver pate (Banh Mi style pickled vegetables, Fresno chili, cilantro aioli). Atop four diagonally cut slices of toast with a light smear of chicken liver pate and the promised jumble of pickled vegetables was a generous toss of microgreens. We could not discern daikon among the Banh Mi style pickled vegetables, but otherwise enjoyed this very creative presentation of an American standard.
Salt and Board is a fun gathering place in one of Albuquerque’s best people-watching neighborhoods. A relaxed, dog-friendly patio and old-world influenced cuisine—what could be better than that?
Salt and Board
115 Harvard SE Suite 9
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 24 March 2018
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Charcuterie Board, Chicken Liver Pate Banh Mi Style, The Italian