Raclette is a signature culinary dish of Switzerland and the European Alps. It consists of slices of heated, soft, melted cheese accompanied by small, firm boiled potatoes, gherkins, and pickled onions. Raclette traces its origins back many centuries to cow herders, shepherds, and farmers, who would place a wedge of cheese in front of a campfire and scrape off slice after slice as the cheese heated. The word raclette comes the French "racler", which means to scrape.
You can still enjoy raclette in front of a campfire today, but the modern way of preparing raclette in the home is to use a small tabletop electric raclette grill or broiler. It is self-service as each person places a sliced portion of raclette cheese onto a small tray under the heating elements of the grill. In a minute or two, the cheese is bubbling hot and ready to be retrieved and scraped onto the plate over a boiled potato.
The cheese itself is also called raclette. Typically raclette cheese is produced from pasteurized cow’s milk and aged. It is characterized by a firmly textured, pale-yellow body with scattered small holes and a smooth, light-brown natural rind. The cheese has a mellow, distinctive aromatic flavor that intensifies when heated. Raclette cheese can be found in specialty food stores and ordered online. Unless you have a larger cradle raclette grill, described below, it will be necessary to pre-slice the cheese before the meal begins. Quarter-inch thick slices work well with the tabletop raclette grills.
Often thinly sliced, air-dried beef of the Grisons region of Switzerland is often served with raclette in addition to the potatoes, gherkins, and pickled onions. Prosciutto also goes well. Today's modern tabletop raclette grills also have heated top grill plate that can be used to grill shrimp, meat, poultry, and vegetables. Raclette recipe books have lots of tasty suggestions. The potatoes should be boiled in their skins before the meal. Hold the potatoes warm by placing them on top of the grill in a bowl covered by a small towel. There also are wicker baskets with insulated covers for keeping the potatoes warm.
Typically hot tea or dry white wine is served with the meal. White wines from Switzerland and the French Savoy are preferred with raclette, but if not available, a dry pinot grigio, pinot blanc, or riesling go well with the raclette. Usually an after-dinner cordial also is in order for the digestion after a hearty raclette dinner! Or maybe two ...
Another popular Alpine dish is cheese fondue that consists of blended (often Gruyère and Emmentaler) melted cheeses with wine which is heated and served in a tabletop pot and eaten by dipping long-stemmed forks with bread into the cheese. The pot, known as the caquelon, is usually made from stoneware or enamelled cast iron. When taken to the table for serving, the pot is placed on a small stand with a small burner (known as the rechaud). The bottom of the pot must be thick enough to absorb heat from the burner to prevent burning the cheese. The cheese should smooth and hot but not so hot that it burns (although there always is a "prized" thin crust at the bottom that is enjoyed at the end). Large cubes of bread (often day-old bread) are dipped into the cheese and eaten immediately. Cheese fondue should be considered a main course and not a starter because it is so filling. A recommended serving measure is about 8oz of cheeses per person.
The fondue concept has been extended to cooking cubed meats and vegetables in either hot oil (fondue bourguignonne) or hot broth (fondue chinoise). The meat and vegetables are dipped with forks and allowed to cook in the pot. Usually a variety of sauces are offered to complement. Another fondue is the chocolate fondue, where melted choclated is served in the pot and eaten with forks holding pieces of fruit.