The festive period is approaching, and that means get-togethers with friends and loved ones. But putting together a hearty Yuletide spread takes far too much effort. Instead, consider laying out a grazing platter – a collection of bite-sized nibbles resplendent in taste and texture.
A grazing platter can come as a plate of cheeses, or function as a charcuterie board. Sometimes, it can combine both elements – or have none. Think of these grazing boards as a giant snack buffet; a layered production of sweet, salty, sour, savoury and everything else in between, so there is something for everyone.
Deli meats are a grazing essential. These salty slivers act as a blanket for other elements on the plate, and taste just as addictive as is. Over at Salted and Hung, chef-owner Drew Nocente suggests leaning into your personal preferences, and feature a hearty selection of at least four different textures and complementary flavours. His suggestion? Jamon, bresaola, rillette and pate.
Group executive chef for Da Paolo Group, Andrea Scarpa, agrees. “A common misconception is to have as much variety as possible on a grazing platter, which might not go well together,” he says. The key, instead, is finding harmony.
For beginners, slices of Parma ham will never disappoint. “It is the king of any cold cuts board,” he says. This pink-tinged fine meat has a universal appeal, with salty-sweet layers and an almost creamy fat running down the side. He suggests pairing Prosciutto di Parma with one or two more common cuts – rich pistachio mortadella or mild spiced soppressata salami.
Levelled-up options might see stronger flavoured additions, such as game meats. You can try wild boar and kangaroo from gourmet butchers. They offer unexpected tastes. Otherwise, pretend finds of culatello and coppa piacentina provide a richer, bolder profile.
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There is a popular rule for choosing cheeses: something old, something new, something stinky, and something blue. But co-founder of Cheeselads Chloe Lee believes otherwise. “Not everyone is a fan of goat cheese, sheep’s cheese, or blue cheese. You don’t have to include it on your grazing platter if you will not enjoy eating it,” she says.
When dining with people who are new to cheese, she recommends gouda, gruyere, and cheddar (“these cheeses are easy to accept”). Lashings of honey can also help for those worried about strong-tasting fromage, while throwing in some water crackers will act as palate cleansers between bites, and allow people to taste the cheese in their purest form.
For the serious snack eaters, Chloe shares that hard-aged cheeses are the way to go; with the passing of time, the flavours develop to become deeper and more complex. Cave-aged cheddar boasts robust, rounded notes while the aged Rutland Red has a unique flaky texture and lingering caramel-like aroma.
Pairing tip: Cheeses don’t just taste good on their own; they pair well with meats too. Prosciutto with parmesan is a delightful union of sweetness and savouriness, according to senior sous chef at Tablescape, Ethan Tang. Or try cubes of gouda, in varying notes from salty to smoky, with salami to discover tasteful permutations.
The empty spaces left between cheeses and meats are typically stuffed with other nibbles and snacks. Anything goes – from dips to sauces, fresh vegetables to dried fruits, bread to biscuits. Their primary function is to refresh the palette, says Ethan. Punchy relishes, such as caramelised onions, and juicy fresh fruits are popular choices.
For a gourmet touch, work in seasonal finds and tropical fruits to enjoy peak freshness. “Ideally, there should be a wide variety of items so that people will create their own ‘pairings’, play with flavours and find out what works best for them. They can create their own snacks through the day, or however long the platter lasts,” he adds.
With the growing meatless trend, it might be worth incorporating plant-based options, too. Depending on the dietary restrictions of guests, dips and crudites can make for wholesome inclusions, shares food stylist Elodie Bellegarde. Nut dips and beetroot hummus can also provide a healthy dose of flavour, while marinated artichokes and tempeh sticks are just as fun to munch on.
Working in your favourite Asian condiment can be a fun way to spice things up, literally. Elodie suggests sambal for a potent kick of heat and umami, best enjoyed with emping crisps; and even kimchi laid atop crackers or thinly sliced bread. Or do away with traditions completely and create an entirely novel platter filled with things you’d like to serve and eat. “I was actually thinking the other day about a breakfast pancake grazing platter with small pancakes, some fruits, a couple of little ramekins filled with maple syrup or a buttery syrup, some yoghurt,” she shares.
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We first feast with our eyes, and constructing a visually appealing platter is just as important as the ingredients themselves. Elodie, who also works as a photographer, knows this best; she likens grazing boards to blank canvases, and accompaniments as “paints and colours that follow a theme or idea”.
She suggests starting with a good-looking base – a chopping board works, and a vintage piece of wood will surely add dramatic visual interest. You can use trays and ceramic plates, too. Then, tackle the larger elements first (rounds of cheese, snack-cradling bowls, and the likes) by spacing them out.
Scatter items of various hues to fill in the blanks and add visual interest. Some red-hued meats here, and sprinkling orange-tinged produce there. “By balancing colours, you will create a flow and harmony,” Elodie shares. And like all works of art, having a pair of deft hands and an eye for design will help. “It is about visually balancing the components of the platter, making it perfectly imperfect,” she adds.
Don’t forget to factor in time as well. Fruits that oxidise are best left to the last minute to plate, and soft herbs might lose their aroma after staying out for too long. Runny cheeses, like camembert and brie, can benefit from being taken out of the fridge earlier than other variants to give them time to breathe. If it all sounds a little too daunting, Elodie has a neat trick: arrange everything to your liking in advance, then only remove ingredients that need to be stored in the fridge. She says: “You will only need to prep those last-minute ingredients as your guests arrive without fussing too much over the styling.”
The beverage of choice is just as essential an element, and popping open a bottle of vino is always welcomed. A lively brut will lend some much-needed refreshing quality between bites to cut through all the lingering flavours. French wines that are lighter in body will complement a meat-heavy board as well. Or swap out alcohol for booze-free options; any drink with carbonation works great. Natural sodas and low-sugar variants with lively bubbles can help lift the fats – from cheeses, meats – from the tongue. Dress the fizzy base with floral cordials and fresh herbs for extra oomph.
This article originally appeared in The Peak