The word charcuterie invokes such French classics as pâtés, terrines, and rillettes, but the term can be stretched to include a range of sausages (such as calabrese and andouille) and things as far afield as venison pâté and duck prosciutto. The traditional "charcuterie plate" — a staple of French restaurant menus — provides a selection of several types along with accompaniments such as cornichons (tart gherkin pickles), olives, toast points, and one or more mustards.
At most Charleston restaurants that serve charcuterie, the elements of the plate change regularly, reflecting a history of practicality and efficiency. Charcuterie allows cooks to use every part of an animal, including the small scraps of meat left over after the rest has been butchered as well as the fat, the livers, and other organs. The techniques make the most of whatever meats and game are being served on the rest of the menu, taking the bits that would ordinarily end up in the trash (or never even be delivered through the door) and transforming them into an ever-changing collection of savory treats.
For many chefs, their charcuterie is linked to their interest in traditional ways of cooking as well as their commitment to using fresh, naturally-raised local ingredients. It is both an art form and a challenge. It's not much of a trick to take vacuum-sealed filet mignon or double-cut pork chops, sauté them, and top them with a drizzle of a reduction sauce. Taking a 60-pound pork loin or, even better, an entire 300-pound pig, butchering it yourself, and making something delicious out of every scrap of it — from the tenderloin down to the fat and bones — now that's a challenge. (Read Sarah O'Kelley's piece about Chef Anthony Gray at High Cotton and how he does it on page 10.)
Charcuterie also reflects the resurgence of pork on the local scene. There's a lower premium on using all-natural pork than there is on beef — a couple of bucks more a pound — which makes it more practical for chefs who want to focus on top-quality ingredients without bankrupting their patrons. Production of all-natural pork is on the rise in South Carolina, and Charleston's chefs are increasingly able to get their products from right in their own backyards. And when they do, they try to make good use of every last bit of it.
Diners, too, are rediscovering the delights of fresh, house-made sausages, pâtés, rillettes, and terrines. As the unfounded national fear of animal fat begins to ebb, more and more restaurant-goers are seeking out dishes that evoke simplicity, comfort, and a more robust way of eating. A charcuterie plate is ideal for sharing over a couple of glasses of Pinot Noir or a good dark beer, and artisanal butchers are starting to make available an array of handmade sausages, prosciutto, and confits that were impossible to find only a few years ago.
Slightly North of Broad
Downtown. 192 East Bay St. (843) 723-3424
At Slightly North of Broad the charcuterie plate is available for both lunch and dinner, and the lineup changes regularly. The plate on a recent visit included a duck liver terrine, country pork pâté, pork rillette, smoked ham, and kielbasa, all made in-house. A spicy hot-pepper jelly joined the traditional yellow and whole-grain mustards. The country pork pâté stood out in particular — mixed with almonds and dried cherries and wrapped in bacon, it had a dense chewy texture and rich, complex flavors from nutmeg and other spices.
For Chef Frank Lee and his sous chefs, creating charcuterie is part of the overall rhythm of the cooking process. Starting with 60-pound bone-in pork loins, they carve out the main part of loin, brine it, and serve it sliced and grilled as a lunch entrée. The rib meat and wrap goes into the sausage for the shrimp and grits, and the rest is transformed into charcuterie — the butt becoming rillette and the pork scraps the country pâté. Even the bones are broken down and used for stock, which forms the base of the sauce for the fried chicken livers. The sautéed duck breast on the dinner menu enters the kitchen as a whole duck. The breasts are carved off for the main dish, the fat and legs are used for the confit, and the tenderloins and fatback become sausage. The remaining shreds of meat are used in duck-meat salad, and the liver becomes a classic pâté for the charcuterie plate. "If you aren't breaking down your own animals," Chef Lee says, "you aren't doing it right." He's doing it right.
39 Rue de Jean
Downtown. 39 John St. (843) 722-8881
Jonathan Banta credits his sous chefs for their passion in driving the restaurant's charcuterie offering, and they look to the past for inspiration. Banta and crew have been scouring the shelves at the Charleston County Public Library, seeking out cookbooks as old as the 15th century and studying the traditional recipes for ideas to incorporate into their own menu.
Two items — smoked salmon and duck rillette — always anchor the plate at Rue, but the pâtés and sausages rotate weekly. Recent offerings include a pâté composed of thinly-shredded pork (reminiscent of finely-chopped barbecue), a smooth slice of foie gras, and a chewy, highly-spiced rabbit terrine. Rue's charcuterie plate is large enough to serve two, but for solo diners, help is on the way: a new bar menu is coming in a few months, and they're looking to add charcuterie to the lunch menu, too.
Johns Island. 3140 Maybank Hwy. (843) 559-9090
Most of the house-made charcuterie in Charleston is to be found in the high-end restaurants down on the peninsula, but a good option a little farther out from town is Fat Hen on Johns Island. Served in a casual environment reminiscent of an old farmhouse, Fat Hen's charcuterie platter features a classic pâté along with house-made sausages and smoked salmon. A solo chicken liver pâté is available on the lunch menu, too.
Downtown. 334 East Bay St. (843) 577-0094
For those looking to assemble their own charcuterie plates to serve at home, Ted's Butcherblock is Charleston's best bet. While Ted's does not currently make their own versions of the French classics in-house, they do carry a full selection of top-quality charcuterie items as well as all the traditional accompaniments such as cornichons and mustards. The duck liver pâté is made at Lana Restaurant, and a range of international sausages are available to complement it. Ted's has been making their own pancetta for some time now, curing pork bellies for three weeks and dry aging them for another month. Owner Ted Dombrowski is looking to expand the housemade offerings in 2008, adding salamis and eventually pâtés and terrines.
Pâté: Pâté is made from ground meat that is mixed with seasonings and spices, wine, or liqueur (port, brandy, and cognac are common), and often dried fruits and nuts. The mixture is usually placed in a mold and cured overnight, then baked in an oven, chilled, and served sliced. In America the term pâté has become closely associated with the velvety smooth variety made from goose, duck, or chicken liver, but the texture of traditional pâtés can vary greatly, from smooth and creamy to coarse and chewy. Pork, veal, rabbit, duck, and chicken liver are all common meats for pâté.
Terrine: The terms terrine and pâté are often used interchangeably, but technically a pâté is removed from its mold before being sliced and served while a terrine is served in the mold itself. In practice, many restaurateurs line their molds with bacon or gelatin, creating an edible crust to the pâtés, and when served sliced with the crust still on, the charcuterie is called terrine.
Confit: A cooking technique in which meat is salt-cured then cooked slowly in fat, then cooled and chilled in the cooking fat. Confit is literally the French term for "preserving," and anything that has been packed in salt and preserved could be called confit. In Charleston restaurants, the term is most frequently associated with duck.
Rillettes: Originally a means of preserving the extra meat and fat from a butchered hog, traditional rillettes are made from pork belly and/or shoulder, which is heavily salted and cured then poached slowly in its own fat. The cooked meat is then chopped and blended with a little of the cooking fat to make a smooth, moist paste. The style can also be applied to game, rabbit, and fish.