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WHY RACLETTE? Well, as an incorrigible cheese fetishist, I would be extremely hard-pressed to nominate any variety as an absolute favourite. However, with wintry evenings drawing in, Raclette really does come into its own. Furthermore, since both of my local supermarkets suddenly ceased to stock it recently (to my horror!!) I felt it incumbent upon me to do what little I can to raise its profile on these shores!
BACKGROUND: Raclette has a long tradition in both Switzerland and France, its name deriving from the French word "racler" meaning "to scrape."
The cheese was first produced in the mountainous Valais canton of Switzerland, near the French border, hundreds of years ago. This is one of the most beautiful regions in Switzerland. In summer the Alps are lush and green, and plump cows graze, udders swinging, with the chime of their bells resonating down into the valleys below. Legend has it that Raclette was discovered here by the local cow herders, who would set up camp in the Alps overnight, and melted the cheese on the rocks beside their campfires. Once melted, it would be scraped off with a knife, and the soft, molten cheese would then be spread onto a hunk of bread. Other explanations involve the grape harvesters of the Valais, who, as legend suggests, inadvertedly melted the cheese one night when warming themselves beside their evening campfire, later scraping it off to eat with potatoes as an accompaniment to their wine.
Origins aside, the melting & scraping are both absolutely key, because whilst there is no real reason not to eat this cheese raw, and it makes for a perfectly pleasant semi-hard cheese in that state, cooking it transforms it into something quite magical and unique. When Raclette melts, it does so uniformly, holding together without splitting or turning entirely liquid. The raw cheese has a wonderfully subtle, slightly nutty taste, which completely transforms itself, once melted, developing a smoother, more intense flavour.
MY OWN love affair with Raclette began a few years ago, when I was living in Switzerland. We were in an ancient, wooden little Fondue-stube in Zermatt, an exquisite resort at the foot of the Matterhorn, which is Switzerlands tallest mountain. A cluster of Japanese tourists were squeezed, four-abreast, into the little booth beside us. Suddenly, there was an excitable tittering as an extravagant platter of pickles and cooked vegetables was presented before them. A large, quartered grill followed, upon which a golden lake of sweet-smelling cheese was bubbling gently. To paraphrase that awful shampoo commercial, my only thought was Ill have what theyre having! and Ive been besotted ever since.
Raclette is traditionally served from autumn until Easter, and usually in the manner described above, that is, on a specially designed grill. These can vaguely resemble a sort of waffle-maker. Modern versions are generally electric, and frequently include a warming plate for the vegetables or meat that accompanies the cheese. The grill generally holds a number of individual trays, usually about 3 & a half inches square, which can be removed once the cheese is melted. In Switzerland, virtually every household has one of these contraptions, and the Raclette grill has become as ubiquitous as the Fondue maker. Like Fondue, Raclette proves tremendously sociable; it isnt just a meal, its a dining experience.
As with many things in Switzerland, an array of strict rules and procedures surrounds the preparation of Raclette, which, in the company of natives, one neglects at ones peril! However, preparing Raclette at home really ought to be relatively painless. To serve in the traditional way, it will probably prove necessary to have a Raclette grill. These cost about £30-£40. Theres no real cooking involved, just a little preparation. Allow for about 200g-250g of Raclette per person. There are a number of Raclette varieties, both French & Swiss. Perhaps the best known is the Riches Montes, a French version. The Raclette is generally served with boiled new potatoes, pickled cucumbers, crisp little cocktail onions, sliced mushrooms, peppers & freshly cut bread. Paprika & black pepper is commonly sprinkled onto the cheese whilst it melts, although purists no doubt balk at this. Serve Raclette with a very light, dry white wine to offset the richness of all that cheese; Id suggest an Alsace Riesling, or better still, one from the Valais-Wallis region.
My own favourite recipe involving Raclette is far simpler, however. In truth, it is scarcely a recipe at all, more what my husband somewhat ungraciously refers to as glorified cheese on toast! I owe it to a little Gasthof, the name of which sadly alludes me, in a charming medieval town called Baden, which is about 15 minutes west of Zurich. The chef there, quaintly enough, referred to this as his Toast Hawaii, presumably by virtue of the fact that it has a slice of pineapple on it. It is quite simply a nice, thick slice of the best bread you can get, preferably a light rye. Spread with Dijon mustard, top with a pineapple ring, and a couple of slices of Serrano ham. Then cover with enough Raclette to constitute abject gluttony. Place this under the grill in a small ovenproof dish, preferably just a little larger than the bread, so that the melted cheese laps around the sides once grilled. Serve with a crisp green salad, extra bread, to mop up the melted cheese, and a light dry white, as before.
Not suitable for the lactose intolerant. Or anyone prone to indigestion. Gaviscon won't help you here...
Otherwise, it's one of the most delectable dishes a cheese-freak could wish for.
Raclette cheese is best served in the traditional method, bubbling. A very traditional starter in Switzerland, in fact with entire restaurants dedicated to it, the raclette is a joy. The waitress tends to your raclette needs by heating up the surface of a big half-a-cheese under a special raclette grill. This superheats the surface of the cheese and when ready she pulls the cheese down to pour the top layer towards the small plate. This plate is in turn heated by a candle to keep the cheese molten. The taste is fantastically strong, more like a vintage cheddar without the sometimes bitter taste. Normally this is enhanced by the cocktail onions and mini gherkins traditionally served on another plate. Try this cheese with Viande Sechée too . . . I love the mixture of the taste, texture and sheer cholesterol of raclette, especially served with a good bottle of Swiss white wine.