Raclette is a quintessentially Swiss dish whose origins date as far back as those of the country (a.d. 1291). Although cheese fondue is often considered the national dish of Switzerland, many Swiss consider Raclette more authentically Swiss, since fondue is equally popular in adjacent regions of France.
The word “Raclette” refers both to the kind of cheese used in the dish and the dish prepared from it. Raclette cheese is traditionally made from raw grass-fed cow’s milk and is semi-hard (pâte mi-dure) with a relatively thin, edible, rind and few, if any, holes. It is aged only three to six months and has no blue inoculation. (Today, most raclette cheese made in Switzerland is produced from pasteurised milk, but in the canton of Valais, it must be made from raw milk to be called Valais Raclette.)
Non-traditional raclette cheese may have added flavouring such as garlic, sliced peppercorns, paprika (all seen commonly) and more exotic innovations such as onions, truffles, bits of bacon, and herbs. I’ve even tried raclette cheese made from goat’s milk, but it worked poorly.
Raclette cheese is usually produced in rounds whose size varies from one producer to another. A typical modern round is around 5.5 kg, and is often sold in half-rounds of around 2.7 kg. You can also buy square blocks cut from these rounds of around 500 g or slices from these slabs; we’ll see how these are used below.
What is common to all kinds of raclette cheese is that when heated, it melts into a creamy consistency without separating into fat and milk solids like some other cheeses. This makes it ideal for Raclette, the dish, which we’ll now examine.
Tradition has it that cow herders in the mountainous regions of Switzerland would, when moving their herds among Alpine pastures, carry with them, for their meals, a half round of raclette cheese and some potatoes or bread, all of which keep well without refrigeration. In the evening, after starting their campfire, they would bring the round up to the fire so its heat would begin to melt the exposed part of the half-round, then scrape the melting cheese onto slices of bread or potatoes which had been boiled over the campfire. Racler is the French verb “to scrape”, and the word “raclette” comes from scraping the melting cheese from the heated round.
Today, few people build a campfire to enjoy raclette (although, if you have one, why not?). Instead, some people and restaurants use an electric heater with a half-round of cheese or a block cut from one.
You rotate the cheese round under the heater, hold the plate below the lower end of the round, and scrape the melting cheese onto the plate with a knife. If you’re a purist, special knives are available, with one side for scraping and the other for cutting the rind for those who (being also purists) prefer it with their cheese. Between servings, rotate the cheese away from the heat so it doesn’t dribble (much) onto the platform below.
This is typically how raclette is prepared in restaurants or at festivals such as the Désalpe de Lignières. With today’s small families, a 2.7 kg half-round or even a 500 g block is a lot of cheese for one sitting, and the most popular way to serve raclette at home is with slices and a raclette/grill apparatus. That’s what we’ll use for the meal below.
Let’s make a raclette dinner. Here are the ingredients.
For one or two people, you’ll need around a kilogram of “new” potatoes. These are often sold in Switzerland as “Raclette” potatoes, but elsewhere choose small potatoes with a thin skin (which you cook and eat) that don’t disintegrate into mush when you slice or mash them after cooking. In French such potatoes are called «chair ferme»; I don’t know the phrase in English, but most new potatoes (as opposed to the big ones with thick skins for baking) are of this kind. Don’t peel them; we’ll cook and eat them with the skins on. The skin has much of the flavour and vitamins of the potato. If the potatoes are dirty, wash them. (New potatoes you buy in Switzerland are almost always washed, but if yours aren’t, scrub them under running cold water. “Don’t eat dirt—dilute—dilute!”)
Fill a saucepan with enough water to cover the potatoes (but don’t add them yet), add a bit of salt (or omit, if you wish), and bring to a boil. Once the water is boiling, add the potatoes (gently; you don’t want to splash the boiling water on the stove or yourself) and boil for 15 minutes or until you can push a fork into a potato without encountering a hard centre. Once the water comes up to a full boil after adding the potatoes, you can reduce the heat until it’s just boiling; once water is boiling, adding heat only makes the water boil away faster and doesn’t raise the temperature or cook the potatoes any quicker. (If you’re at seriously high altitude, you may have to increase the cooking time. I find 15 minutes works fine for anywhere from sea level to Fourmilab’s altitude of 800 metres.)
While the potatoes are boiling, set up the raclette/grill apparatus and the accessories. Usually, with a dinner for multiple guests, you’ll put it in the centre of the table. Connect to electricity, turn on, and set to the highest temperature initially to heat up to operating temperature (this takes a while—I usually turn on the grill about half way through boiling the potatoes). Make sure there is nothing flammable or prone to melting near the grill. Set out butter, salt and pepper, complements such as cornichons (small cucumber pickles) and pickled onions, and innovative condiments such as hot sauce, jalapenos, bacon salt, sour cream, and whatever else you fancy. Some people serve cold cuts such as ham or sausage with raclette, but I find that a bit much: cheese and potatoes are very filling all by themselves.
Once the timer for the potatoes goes “bing”, it’s time to eat! Turn off the heat on the potatoes, but leave them in the water; this will keep them warm during the meal in case people want second or third helpings. Invite diners to pick four or five potatoes from the pan onto their plates with kitchen tongs and take them to the table, where they can lightly mash them with butter, salt and pepper, and if utterly decadent, sour cream (you want to mash into pieces, not a uniform starchy continuum). Meanwhile, they’ll have chosen a slice of cheese from the variety you’ve set out (I usually provide an assortment of classic, pepper, garlic, and paprika), put it into a pan («coupelle») and placed it into the raclette/grill. With the grill up to temperature, it will only take around a minute for the cheese slice to melt to a creamy consistency. After you start the meal, you’ll probably want to reduce the grill temperature so the cheese doesn’t melt more quickly than a diner can finish the previous slice. Take some of the pickles and onions and enjoy their crunchy contrast with the melted cheese and potatoes. You can see the rind in the melted cheese in the picture below; this is how raclette is traditionally served.
Innovators may enjoy putting a spritz of hot sauce on top of the cheese before they put it into the grill, or topping it with a slice of tomato, onion, bits of bacon, or whatever comes to mind. Innovators…always making trouble!
Raclette is traditionally accompanied by light, fruity Swiss white wines such as Fendant, made from the Chasselas grape. Teetotalers usually choose tea with raclette. Conventional wisdom is that cold drinks such as water and diet toxic sludge may cause the cheese to harden into a bolus which can only be extracted by surgery or a plumber’s snake, but I know of no hard evidence for this. Consider yourself warned.
There is very little cleaning up after a meal of raclette, regardless of the number of people at the table. You’ll probably have potatoes left over. Pluck them from the now-cooling water and put them into a frigo container (the Fourmilab term of art is “white box”, as in “white box dinner”) and, after they come to room temperature, bung them into the frigo. Leftover cheese should be tightly wrapped in aluminium foil and refrigerated. It will have been inoculated with airborne nasties while on the table and will begin growing green hairy cruft after a week or so; be sure to use it before this happens. The pickles and onions can be returned to their jars and the condiments returned to the refrigerator; they’ll keep almost forever—they’re more patient than your appetite.
One little-appreciated property of raclette cheese is that however crusty it has become when heated, after a few minutes in warm water it softens and is easily wiped away. After you remove the potatoes from the cooling (but yet warm) water, throw in the cheese melting pans, scrapers, and utensils, wait about ten minutes, and with a quick swipe with the scrubber they’ll be ready to throw into the dish grinder, which will do the work Swiss people won’t.
The best thing to do with leftovers is encore raclette! Not the next day, but a day or two later, and maybe for lunch. Now, you don’t necessarily want to haul out the whole apparatus, so you might consider the Fourmilab innovation I call nuclette. Take a small bowl, place one or two leftover potatoes in it; mash lightly, add a little butter, place a slice of leftover raclette cheese on top, cover with a plate and place in the microwave. Nuke it for one or two minutes, et voilà, almost authentic raclette. Add salt and pepper, stir it up, and enjoy. Repeat if you remain peckish.
If you have entirely too many potatoes left over, consider making Fourmilab’s Can’t Fail Potato Salad from them—they’re already cooked, so it’s just a matter of minutes to prepare.