My introduction to raclette came when my roommate toted home a half-wheel of the cheese from a sojourn in Switzerland.
She told of Alpine restaurants where raclette dinners made up the entire evening menu. In these rustic establishments, raclette is melted over a fire at one end of the room. As the cheese melts, waiters quickly scrape it onto plates piled with steaming new thin-skinned potatoes, and serve it with gherkins and pickled onions on the side.
This centuries-old tradition supposedly got its start from shepherds (though some say it originated with grape pickers), who would take a half-wheel of raclette with them while out tending their flock. With a minimum of fuss and equipment, they could make a tasty and filling supper over the evening campfire. The shepherds set their cheese on a rock next to the fire, and when it had melted, scraped it onto a plate of boiled potatoes.
My roommate planned to reenact this Swiss tradition with a raclette party. Never mind that we didn't have a fireplace. A trip to the corner drugstore produced a somewhat less attractive substitute - a space heater.
The night of the party, guests easily found their way to our apartment by the strong aroma. While some were a little reluctant to try the odoriferous raclette, a small taste of this salty, pungent cheese had us quickly in line for more. My roommate was soon busy melting and scraping. I am not sure she had time to eat any herself.
Although I never forgot the wonderful party, I didn't have raclette again until many years later when a French bakery in Kansas City announced it would be serving raclette dinners during the Christmas holidays. I quickly made reservations for my husband and me. Not having the requisite fireplace, the restaurant had purchased table-top raclette grills. We were immediately brought a platter mounded with little new potatoes and raclette, and side dishes of gherkins and pickled onions. What a feast!
We soon discovered that raclette was available at our specialty cheese store and some grocery stores. By using an old griddle set atop a fondue pot stand, we could have our own raclette parties.
This improvised raclette-cooking setup made for a convivial evening of eating, similar to a fondue party. With a platter of sliced cheese ready to melt, and a big bowl of steaming new potatoes, and sour gherkins, this is as easy as entertaining gets.
Raclette is a raw-milk cheese produced in the Franche Comte region of the French Alps. Raclette comes from racler, a French word meaning to scrape off. When melted, this semihard cheese becomes creamy. Its flavor is described as robust, mellow, and nutty, and its aroma rich. Today it can be purchased flavored with pepper or mustard, as well as in its traditional form.
If raclette is not available in your local grocery store, numerous mail-order sources can be found on the Internet. Additionally, sources for raclette paraphernalia such as grills, wooden scrapers, and cheese slicers (unnecessary) can also be found on the Web.
Planning a raclette party
A green salad and crusty French bread are good accompaniments for raclette. Ham or other cured meats, along with the raclette, is also traditional, as well as serving gherkins (cornichon) - tiny sour pickles and boiled onions. The amount of food will depend on the heartiness of your eaters.
1 to 2 pounds raclette cheese, rind removed, (or not if heating it by an open fire) cut into 1-inch-by-3-inch slices, approximately 3/8-inch thick
2 to 3 pounds boiled new potatoes
If you have a fireplace, all you need is a wooden plank that has been soaked overnight in water, and a large hunk of raclette. Otherwise, a tabletop electric griddle or ceramic fondue pot that uses canned Sterno will do. Raclette grills are available at specialty cheese and kitchen stores. You also will need small (preferably wooden) spatulas, to scrape melted cheese onto the plates (or long forks for dipping potatoes into a fondue pot).
Each guest melts a piece of cheese on the griddle. When it begins to bubble and melt, it is scraped up, served over potatoes, and topped with ground pepper. (If using a fondue pot, simply spear a potato, onion, or gherkin with a fork, and dip into the melted cheese.)
Don't neglect any residual cheese that has become crusty on the griddle, or you're missing the best part. Immediately put another slice of cheese on griddle or grill to melt after scraping cheese onto potatoes.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society