A cheerful group of people, young and old, gathering around a table in mouthwatering anticipation for a culinary explosion. In the middle, an electric appliance heats up little pans filled with a multitude of vegetables and other ingredients. Melting cheese fills the air with a strong but heavenly scent while small pieces of meats and sausages simmer on a hot plate above. If you have ever encountered Raclette, this is most probably the way you know it. It is how many cheese lovers have come to enjoy the traditional dish far beyond Switzerland’s borders since the 1950s. Little do most people know what original Raclette looks like in the Alpine country.
Raclette is the name of both a type of cheese as well as the traditional dish which – similar to Fondue, another Swiss classic – revolves around slowly melting cheese. Raclette is a full-flavored cheese from the Swiss region of the Valais. Already with an intense smell when cold, the cheese releases it’s full aroma as it melts under the heat. It is unquestionable that making Raclette with any other, especially milder cheese would just not be the same. Subsequently, also the dish has its origin in the same region of Switzerland.
While the modern version with little pans sets no limits to the accompaniments, the more traditional Raclette in Switzerland is a rather set combination. Together with the melted cheese come sides of Gschwellti – Swiss for boiled potatoes –, pickled cucumbers, vinegar onions, mustard fruits, tomatoes and pepper. The Swiss typically enjoy the cheesy deliciousness with tea or other warm beverages, cherry brandy, and especially popular: Fendant white wine from the Valais itself. You will find most locals advising against drinking plain water. The reason is that it supposedly leads to digestion issues by hardening the cheese in the stomach.
This Is How The Original Works
The most native form of the Valais Raclette tradition is pretty far from its internationally known equivalent. Originally, halves of cheese are simply positioned close to an open fire in order to melt and smoke the cheese at the same time. This more-than-simple method gives the traditional Raclette its characteristic and unique taste. An extraordinary flavor that the electric device certainly cannot provide.
While this most traditional form may still exist in certain places, most Swiss people now turn to some technical help, as well. Whether in restaurants or family homes, specifically engineered cookers often substitute open fireplaces and make the melting process more convenient. The devices consist of a metal bracket that holds half a wheel of cheese below an encased heating spiral. Once the cheese melts, the designated chef takes the wheel from the heat, tilts it and scrapes the cheese onto a plate. These steps repeat until all cheese lovers have had their full dose of the yellow specialty.
The reason why the modern version of Raclette is so popular for occasions like New Year’s Eve lies not only in the culinary experience, however. The dish is simply perfect for group gatherings and long evenings of continuous dining. And this social element is anything but new. The cozy tradition has always brought people together in front of an indoor fireplace or around a camp fire. The necessity of waiting for the cheese to melt would encourage conversations and contribute to a convival happening.
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How To Make Raclette At Home – Some Inspiration
Many of you might know the Raclette cookers that are especially popular in Western countries. They come in different shapes and sizes with little square or triangular pans. The principle is simple and always the same. Everybody gets their own pan to fill it with all kinds of delicious ingredients. Cover them with a slice of the aromatic Raclette cheese and pop it under the heating spiral to gratinate everything. Et voilà, welcome to paradise!
Now, when you can use pretty much anything, it is often even more difficult to come up with something specific. For that reason, we have compiled some delicious ingredients for your inspiration – all very simple but incredibly delicious in combination.
To put into the little pans and top it with slices of Raclette cheese: ham, bacon, salami, prawns, boiled potatoes, pickles, olives, peppers, fresh tomatoes, dried tomatoes, asparagus, mushrooms, onions, chili or jalapeños, feta cheese, mozzarella, spinach leaves, garlic butter, among many others.
And for the hot plate on top: Thin slices of beef, pork or chicken filets, mini sausages, shrimps, cubes of tuna or other fish, filled mushrooms with garlic or tomato butter, bacon strips, among many others.
That’s Why We Love Swiss Farmers
Raclette, or at least similar concepts, have been around in Switzerland for hundreds of years. Already in the 13th century, a dish with the name “Bratchäs” gained popularity among Swiss cow herders. The Alpine farmers would carry the chese with them as they moved the cattle up on the mountains. After a hard day’s work, the men would simply lave the cheese next to the campfire to melt. Scraped onto a piece of bread, the melted cheese was a simple, yet filling and delicious dinner.
So far, so good. But why is it called “Raclette”? The name stems from the act of scraping down the melted part of the cheese. This is what the word “racler” means in the French dialect of the Valais. Although, the meaning doesn’t make sense for the modern version with the small pans anymore, the name has survived and holds up its heritage.
Nothing here yet – do you know of anything similar from other countries? Let us know!
Photos by Dominique Archambault