How I Learned to Stop Deconstructing and Love the Pairing

by Emily Bell
April 2015


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    Chef Joshua Smith New England Charcuterie - Waltham, MA
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    Chef Joshua Smith New England Charcuterie - Waltham, MA

Exposition doesn’t always enrich experience. Consider the lunch Rising Stars Artisan Joshua Smith had at Charles Semail’s country house in France 17 years ago. “We were splitting wood, and we went in for lunch,” Smith recalls warmly. “It was a baguette, pâté de campagne, and red wine—unbelievable.” The fact that the wine was Châteauneuf-de-Pape, and that Semail is the master charcutier with whom Smith was training, probably elevated the experience, yes. But at heart, it was one of those unassailably perfect moments, requiring less explanation than total, wordless submission.

Like a coquettish Parisienne in a dark red dress, charcuterie and wine simultaneously invite and defy analysis. They are products of a process that’s literally been rooted and bled into the soil, aged in the regional particularity of ambient microbial environments, and perfected over centuries of artisanship. It’s an expression of one really good idea, repeated over time, by new, eager, calloused hands. Digging into the “why” of charcuterie and wine is like taking a 9x magnifying mirror to Catherine Deneuve. As if detail enriches beauty.

The beautiful wine and charcuterie pairings we had in Boston were provocative. But how deeply do we dig? “Personally, I feel that the same traditional pairing suggestions—fat with acid, salty with sweet, bitter with creamy, richness with bubbles, etc.—still apply with charcuterie,” says Joe Camper of Bar Boulud Boston, who made a sublime marriage of a Mosel Spatlese Riesling and a squab and foie gras pâté spiked with spiced rum and softened with apricot chutney. While he began with one foot in the fundamentals (acid cutting fat, Riesling and foie), it was the apricot that guided Camper’s pairing. “Those [side] elements more often than not are what we as sommeliers are looking to match.” But because charcuterie and wine are unapologetic spectrums of idiosyncrasy, Camper couldn’t just go for “any old high acid wine.” The 2002 Merkelbach “Erdener Treppchen” Spatlese grafted Riesling’s high acidity onto an older, slatier backbone fit for the “earthy, rustic nature of charcuterie”—what Camper calls the Farmer’s Daughter Effect. “From a distance, she looks the part of the Parisian, but what’s underneath will always be a rustic girl who knows her way around a shovel.”

Camper, of course, was pairing one-to-one, which isn’t often the case with charcuterie. “Usually you’re pairing one wine with multiple items, items that are cured and composed,” says Kai Gagnon of Bergamot (and soon-to-open wine bar, BISq). “It can be more difficult than people think.” Tasked with a more classically varied board of sobrassada, lonzino, tasso with satsuma and tangerine, and a Creole calf’s liver mousse lightly brûléed with demerara, Gagnon chose a bright, 2013 Chenin Noir. Made from the tiny-yield Pineau D’Aunis grape in the Saumur region (an appellation only for Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc, hence the non-varietal designation), the wine is a lively secondary player. “Successful pairings make you want to keep eating,” says Gagnon.

Of course, there are those items that announce themselves as dominant players. At Row 34, Megan Parker-Gray stared down an elaborate seafood charcuterie board with everything from arctic char lox and smoked scallops to tilefish terrine and monkfish liver mousse (recipe on page TKTK). Her solution: crack a beer. “Smoked and cured is hard for me. There are so many things, and the flavor is the star of the show.” Allagash’s Victor was her answer, a Belgian-style ale infused with Cabernet Franc grapes. “I love the tannic quality that grapes bring to the beer—warming, earthy. [You can] almost taste the barrel it lives in.” The beer’s spicy, tart finish echoes the earthy-acidic duality of Camper’s ’02 Riesling.

But if a charcuterie board exaggerates the inability to pair with everything on the plate, some people, like Smith, are happy to lean into that. “I don’t think it can be approached with one wine,” he says. “Certainly a really well balanced wine can sort of cover the spectrum,” but that’s harder when you get a board like Smith’s: Spanish lomo, orange and fennel-infused Greek loukaniko, bresaola with Oregon beef, chicken liver mousse (in the Marco Pierre White style, with fat blanched, sent through a food processor, blender, and chinois, and then jarred in silky submission), and even a fish sauce- and sriracha-spiked salami, as Smith says, “because we can.”

Embracing variety in charcuterie, Smith has chosen to provide multiple pairing choices at The Back Room, a charcuterie/wine tasting space at the back of his New England Charcuterie, where an Enomatic system keeps 17 red wines on tap, and three more to pour. “We can do a three-ounce pour or a six-ounce pour; we can do a flight, a tasting of wines, with a flight of charcuterie.” Smith, who recently came back from what he calls a “charcuterie walkabout” in Italy, wants the guest to feel as unrestrained as he does. “Honestly, I don’t know if any one wine is the perfect one. We want to create a space where you can explore these flavors and go on an adventure—sort of a vision quest. A charcuterie vision quest.”