The mention of melted cheese probably conjures up images of fondue pots and ‘70s dinner parties for many. However, fondue is just one of many melted cheese dishes in France. Raclette is one of the alternatives, and it’s just as much fun to prepare and eat, but without the worry of the cheese clumping into a glob before making it to the table. That’ll happen in your belly later on.
Raclette is both a dish and a type of cheese served in Switzerland and France. Made in round five or six kilogram blocks and with a salty crust, the cheese is normally served in restaurants sliced down the middle to form a half-moon shape, then placed on a metal holder with a heater to melt the top layer of cheese. Once melted, the layer is scraped off and eaten with potatoes, cold meats and gherkins. Some people prefer to leave the crust (including American chef, Rob, pictured), but it’s edible and very tasty.
At-home raclette grills are different, with mini frying pans for melting pre-sliced cheese. This means you can get creative! Raclette is available infused with other tastes, such as white wine, mustard seeds or herbs, or try the smoked variety, called brezain. Add a slice of goats cheese for extra zing, or skip the raclette cheese altogether and go for the ash-laden morbier or any of your favourite melt-friendly cheeses. The whole raclette dinner experience is sociable, fun and tasty.
Raclette is said to have originated from Valais in Switzerland, documented back to medieval times, when locals would sit the cheese by a campfire, then scrape the melted layer onto rye bread to eat. In 2003, Raclette du Valais was given AOC status (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée), although other regional raclettes, such as Raclette de Savoie (France), Raclette des Appalaches (Canada) and Heidi Farm Raclette (Australia), also exist.
Many farms and co-operatives in the French Alps have viewing areas for the public to watch the cheese-making process. Here, you will see that raclette starts off as a square of cheese, with a red or green label placed on it. Farm-made cheese has a green label, while cheese made from several sources of milk, such as that made in a co-operative, has a red label.
Each square is put into a round mould, then pressed from above to remove excess liquid. The process makes the cheese round and flatter, and it is left to ripen for four or five months, with the rind brined regularly.
The local French have several raclette traditions. The most important is to drink local white wine with the cheese. They say the wine helps to break up the glob of cheese building in their stomachs. Whatever you do, don’t order red wine. This is a local dish served with local wines only, and the Rhône-Alpes region isn’t famous for red wine. Locals will also warn you off drinking water with raclette: it will only cause the ball of cheese in your belly to firm up, as will any other non-alcoholic beverages. When everyone is too full to eat any more, locals will insist that a shot of locally-made genepi will help the digestive process.
Raclette first-timers might think the scraping process is easy, but there are a few things that the nominated scraper should know. First up, if the crust is not scraped off with each layer of cheese, it becomes impossible for the cheese to melt evenly, and the hardening crust must be sliced off. Secondly, the flat part of the cheese can sometimes become angled, causing the cheese to fall off to one side during each scrape. To look like a pro, keep your cheese flat and crust-free. Finally, be careful not to let the cheese touch the electric grill. Apart from it smelling bad and causing smoke, baked-on cheese is a nightmare to clean.
Remember, raclette requires time. The first few rounds of scraping are so slow that the meal seems unlikely to ever end! But this cheese won’t take long to fill even the most hollow-legged person. Once through those first few impatient rounds, let the cheese bubble a bit longer until it turns brown and increases in flavour. If nothing else, it’ll give your stomach a chance to reduce that cheese ball before you add a bit more to it.
TOP TIP: If you’re hungry for a snack, try slices of raclette cheese grilled on toast. Delicious!
1. A typical raclette grill, with US chef, Rob, scraping the cheese for his plate and leaving the edible rind for the bin.
2. Raclette cheese square with red co-op label. The man in the background is placing it in the round mould where it will be pressed to form a flat circle.
3. With enough people, the entire half of cheese CAN be eaten — crust and all.