There’s nothing quite like a leisurely lunch with friends and family whose company you enjoy, especially when there’s a grand total of zero work involved.
Putting out platters of bite-size assortments of flavours is the easiest way to entertain and make it look like you put a whole lot of effort into the preparations. So for family and friends I decided to do a very French-style picnic using 4 local goat, sheep, and cow’s milk cheeses (3 raw, 1 not – the server’s fault, not mine), my home-made strawberry-rhubarb jam, Newfoundland blueberry jam (sweet), organic snap peas, Quebec asparagus, tomatoes (fresh and light) Dijon mustard, olives, and my homemade dills and sweet-and-sour pickles (salty and acidic) to cut the fat of the beef-, dairy-, and pork-free terrines and patés I wanted to get… …Except those don’t exist. I asked at every single meat and charcuterie (transformed and preserved meat products including terrines, patés, sausages, and “things confit,” including rillettes, and not a single sausage was pork-free, not a single terrine was both pork and dairy-free, and not a single paté had my name on it.
So after asking every vendor – from the place by the pasta shop with rabbit terrine topped in orange slices to the lunch-friendly selection at Première Moisson) the same question and getting answers ranging from laughs to solemn shakes of their heads, I ended up at Fromagerie Hamel. I was there buying a Tomme de Savoie pressed in grape must, a Quebec goat’s milk cheese, a raw camembert-style Quebecois, and another un-grape musted Tomme de Savoie (boring by comparison, but generally well-liked). And low and behold, a mini-charcuterie counter! Not exactly a discovery, I know, but they had dairy-free duck rillettes! Basically just duck meat in duck fat with salt and pepper and maybe a few preservatives, but as long as it wasn’t dairy or pig I was happy. They also had a fois gras mousse and I asked (shaking my own head at myself inside, because there was no chance this was going to work) if the mousse had any dairy in it. It didn’t! It was creamy from duck fat! (Chocolate duck fat mousse??? Lemon duck fat soufflé?)
I find it kind of hilarious that with all the actual butchers in Atwater Market I end up buying my charcuterie at a cheese shop that doesn’t even make its own. The fois gras mousse wasn’t even that expensive because it wasn’t a torchon or a pure piece of duck liver. Think of it as diluted fois gras – except that’s not a bad thing since it’s just diluted with more duck fat…perfectly spreadable and an intense amount of meat flavour in every nibble.
The point is you don’t need a lot of anything; you need lots of little things – small slivers (approx. 120 grams) of each cheese (max 4 cheeses, but many people say 3 is standard), fresh vegetables (I had Lufa Farms cherry tomatoes – the sweetest little explosions of tomato this side of August – and some sliced vine tomatoes), fresh snap peas from the same farm stand outside of Ottawa where I’d bought my organic strawberries that were much better than anything I’d found in Montreal after I’d gotten lost while looking for a highway exit.
We had some sparkling cider and sparkling water, some unsalted crackers, and for dessert, a real splurge:
Two dairy-free dark chocolate bars from French chocolatier (living in Quebec) Christophe Morel. I’d previously tried both his Madagascar “unique origin” chocolate and his blended chocolate, but this time I bought two of his other unique origins: Venezuela and Mexico.
You don’t understand. I don’t love chocolate. I don’t eat chocolate bars, and I don’t care about having a little piece of Lindt after a meal. Butterscotch sauce on bread pudding, yes. Caramel-rum bananas, yes. Vanilla cream, yes. But chocolate? No. If I want sugar at the end of a meal a single piece of chocolate isn’t going to cut it. But you, Christophe, you’re doing something oh-so-right. Each rich piece has such a unique, heavy (or light) flavour that you need to buy at least two bars at once to compare. the Madagascar had a taste of vanilla that I only really noticed when comparing it to the relatively sugary and straight-forward blended bar. The Mexican tasted like nothing until it seemed sweeter and spicier than the slightly metallic, acidic Venezuelan. I want to try them all, just to now the difference, and then I want to buy my favouties again and again.
Of course, they’re ridiculously expensive and you shouldn’t eat more than a few pieces at a time (the cacao will keep a non-coffee drinker up at night) but the quality…wow.
A few notes on serving picnic lunches like above:
1. It’s okay to have the sweetest item in the main course, even paired with the meat and cheese (the blueberry and strawberry-rhubarb jams in this case complemented the richness of the meat and wouldn’t have helped the chocolate at all).
2. In italics above you’ll see the different flavours I was trying to pair – acid with fat, relatively bland vegetables such as steamed asparagus or sautéed fiddleheads (or whatever’s in season – beans, peas, cucumbers) as ways to refresh your tastebuds and not fill up on heavy meats and cheeses. The French have been serving cornichons (gherkins or pickles) with their charcuterie platters for ages. There’s method to it. Other traditional elements of the cheese or charcuterie platter include dried fruit and nuts to add sweet and savoury elements.
3. A small piece of amazing quality cheese gives you much more satisfaction than a huge slab of Kraft. Taste at the cheese shop before purchasing, and know that often a raw cheese will taste better than a pasteurized one simply because it’s much more “alive” and so many of the “dangerous” bacteria that help digestion but scare international governments who import and export cheeses can make a cheese incredibly flavourful and unique.
4. Be decorative. Sure, you’re just throwing a lot of things together, but a little drizzle of jam instead of a plop of jam makes all the difference in the world. Take a spoonful of something sauce-y or jam-y (ex: onion marmalade, red pepper jelly, blackberry jam), place a dollop on the serving board and then use the bottom of your spoon to quickly sweep a smear of it across the board. If you go to slowly it will be awkwardly shaped and bumpy, so your goal is to make it smooth like the white that trails from behind a plane engine.
5. Sometimes keeping elements separate is best. Instead of just throwing nuts or tomatoes or olives over top of everything, try giving them one or two places on the serving board. This is especially good for clean-up when you don’t want to stick jam-and olive brine-soaked nuts and cheeses in the fridge.
6. About “raw” (unpasteurized) cheeses: They don’t keep as long as pasteurized cheeses, so don’t buy a lot at a time, and eat them within about a week. The fois gras mousse and rillettes keep much longer, since that’s what they were originally created to do – keep. Seal their wrapping well to keep them from spoiling.
7. After all that food you shouldn’t feel heavy. We skipped bread and stuck with gluten-free crackers, making digestion much easier on the celiac-leaning people in the group, but also not stuffing our stomachs with yeast and flour. The sparkling cider also helped cut the heaviness of the fat, and, of course, you eat with your eyes, so the presentation is also satisfying.
8. Clean up is a breeze since everything’s on big platters! One small plate each plus a fork and some cheese knives. Not bad at all.