In the United States, nearly everyone is familiar with cheese fondue, but very few people know about raclette. And yet, it is said to be more popular in its native country than fondue.
So what is raclette? It refers to both the popular Swiss meal and the cheese that is at the center of that meal. Pronounced rah-KLET, it comes from the French word, racler, which means “to scrape.” In its most basic form, it is just melted cheese served with boiled potatoes (fingerling or new), cornichons (small pickled cucumbers), pickled onions, and some bread.
It probably dates back to the Middle Ages when Swiss cow herders in the Alpine valleys and mountains are said to have carried hunks of cheese along with them as they moved the cows from one pasture to another. The story goes that, at the end of the day, as the herders warmed themselves around the campfire, they would place their cheese on a stone next to the fire and wait for it to melt enough to scrape on to a piece of bread. According to some lore, the meal was inadvertently discovered when a herder happened to place his bag of cheese and bread near the fire: the cheese melted, the herder scraped it on to the bread, and a delicious meal was created.
The Canton de Valais, one of 26 districts in Switzerland, is in the heart of the Alps—home of the Matterhorn (4478 m / 14691.6 ft.)--and is where raclette is said to have originated. It lies in the southwestern corner of Switzerland, bordering France and Italy. Both French and German are spoken in this canton (although it would not be uncommon to hear Italian as well).
Raclette was first called “Bratchäs,” a German word for “roasted cheese” or the French equivalent, “fromage roti.” It was not until the beginning of the 20th century, when the melted cheese was served at a 1909 Canton de Valais exhibition of regional wines, that the cheese and the meal were christened “raclette.”
|Berghoff raclette cheese|
Today, raclette, the meal, adheres to its roots as a simple dish. However, it is now likely that your melted cheese will be served with more than potatoes, cornichons, pickled onions, and bread! A charcuterie and vegetables almost always accompany the original meal. At our table, it is a veritable feast of accompaniments!
I usually serve several platters of vegetables that may include slivers of red peppers, quartered artichoke hearts and mushrooms, sliced zucchini, cherry tomatoes, scallions, hot peppers, broccoli, baby corn cobs, asparagus, and hearts of palm. Depending on your taste preferences, marinate, pan fry, or serve these accompaniments raw. The potatoes can be served whole or sliced. A simple green salad and baguette are the only other obligatory items although (cooked) shrimp often finds its way on to our table (to the audible pleasure of our guests).
In Switzerland, a Swiss Fendant wine (made from Chasselas grapes) is often paired with raclette. You are also very likely to be offered hot tea or beer. Very cold beverages are not traditionally served as they are thought to disrupt digestion.
In Portsmouth, Dave Campbell, proprietor of Ceres Street Wine Merchants, suggests a simple white wine with some acidity. The 2009 Château du Cléray Muscadet that he selected was perfect. At Portsmouth's South Street and Vine, proprietor Win recommended a Côtes du Rhone from Chateau Beauchêne. It is a lovely white wine that also complemented the cheese perfectly and was an interesting recommendation because the Rhone River flows through the Canton de Valais, where raclette originated, and continues on into to France and south into Provence’s Côtes du Rhone where the wine is produced.
To enjoy raclette, you no longer have to build a camp fire and scrape your cheese off a hot rock. Raclette grills for the home are now widely available. There are two basic types.
|Two-tiered Raclette grill (note the individual tray in foreground)|
|Raclette grill in L’Aïgo Blanco restaurant in Forcalquier|
|Hiking outside of Interlaken|
When we returned to Provence, we found raclette in a restaurant called L’Aïgo Blanco in Forcalquier, about 45 minutes from Lourmarin, the charming village we have long used as our “base camp.” I know it is available in near-by Aix-en-Provence and Marseille, too.
Raclette is a very social meal: lots of passing of platters and, as I suggested above, a lot of affable jostling for grilling space. It is always fun—and easy—to invite a crowd to the house for raclette. Good thing, because it is very hard to find a restaurant that serves this dish outside of Switzerland and France.
No sense unpacking the raclette grill for one person. I melted the cheese in a non-stick skillet, boiled the potatoes, and raided the fridge. I had an open bottle of red wine--a blend of Cab, Syrah, and Petit Syrah--so I poured myself a glass and I cobbled together a very nice dinner.
On a cold winter’s night, the Swiss know what to have for dinner!