If you are a Texan, think of raclette as the Swiss version of a barbeque. It has that same sort of relaxed atmosphere that comes from throwing a piece of meat on the grill, cooking it the way you like it, and then consuming it all while engaging your fellow diners in relaxed, informal conversation.
While raclette is relatively unheard of here in the United States, it has been a popular Swiss dining experience for generations. And while it is often compared to fondue because it offers that same intimate yet casual and relaxed ambiance, it has the excitement and interest of something new and different. A raclette dinner also involves less preparation than fondue.
My favorite gourmet kitchen tools store here in Glendale, Arizona recently hosted a fondue and raclette class under the guidance of Swiss Chef Roberto Izzo. Chef Roberto owns Let’s Ciao, a Personal Chef Service in Phoenix and he is also an excellent sommelier. Wine is another favorite subject of mine and I hope to learn a bit more about it from him.
Depending upon who you listen to, raclette is either a French or Swiss invention. According to documentary evidence from monasteries, William Tell enjoyed Bratchäs – German for ‘roasted cheese’ – as far back as 1291. Raclette comes from the French word racler with means ‘to scrape’. The widely accepted legend is that long ago in the Swiss Alps, cattle herders would pack potatoes, gherkins, bread, and cheese to eat while tending the herd. In the evening they would bake the potatoes in the campfire and melt the cheese on a rock near the fire. As it melted, they would scrape the cheese onto the potatoes or bread, garnished with a few gherkins.
The Modern Raclette Grill
Of course, if we still had to melt our cheese over an open campfire, it would greatly limit our ability to enjoy raclette at home (the time I set fire to the oven excepted, of course). The electric raclette grill, such as the one made by Trudeau shown here, allows us to enjoy raclette any time. Most raclette grills have two surfaces. The upper surface can be used as a simple table-top grill if you wish.
Directly beneath the top surface is the heating element which looks much like the element in an electric oven. This element acts like a broiler to anything placed on the lower surface. Ah ha. The lower surface is intended to accommodate several small raclette plates. In its simplest form, a slice of cheese is put on a raclette plate and the plate is placed on the lower surface. The heating element melts the cheese until it is soft, bubbly, and slightly brown at the edges. The cheese is then scraped off the raclette plate onto potatoes.
Raclette is also a cheese. It is an off-white cheese made from cow’s milk, and to me it has a flavor very distinct from other Swiss cheeses. There are both Swiss and French Raclette cheeses. Chef Roberto informed me that the French variety is slightly oilier and is therefore less suitable for raclette parties than the Swiss Raclette cheese. Who am I to question that?
How To Raclette
There is even less preparation for raclette than fondue. Boil several small red, white, or Yukon Gold potatoes (The Swiss actually use a variety of potato named Raclette), typically 1 – 3 potatoes per person depending upon what else you are serving. Boil the potatoes in their skins. When they are done, put them in a bowl and cover it to keep the potatoes warm.
At the same time, cut up enough Raclette cheese to accommodate several slices per person. Traditionally, gherkins accompany the cheese and potatoes but this is where you can use your imagination. As you can see in the accompanying photo, slices of bacon, prosciutto, or parma ham can be grilled on the upper surface at the same time. Vegetables such as peppers, onions, or mushrooms could also be used. I’ve even seen asparagus tips, wrapped in prosciutto and covered with a slice of Raclette cheese, on a raclette plate under the heating element.
When the cheese is melted and bubbling and has slightly browned at the edges, it is ready. Use the scraper to scrap the cheese onto your plate, covering the potato or your choice of grilled meat or vegetable.