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As early as 1291 according to documents from monasteries, Wilhelm Tell called the cheese “Bratchäs” and Raclette cheese was born. Raclette is a Swiss cheese specialty that is made by melting Raclette cheese. It is believed that it originated in the Valais Canton of Switzerland.
Old tradition has it that farmers took the cheese up into the mountains when they tended to their herds. They placed the cheese over heated stones, the cheese melted and was scraped onto cooked potatoes. Of course as legend goes, it is also believed that they put the cheese too close to a fire and it melted. Whatever the story, it is one of the most popular Swiss dishes.
Raclette is a pungent mountain cheese that is creamy, powerful, full-fat, semi-hard cheese made from whole milk. The maturity period is about 4 – 5 months. It can be bought in a wheel or a square. The original cheese is made in Switzerland but you also get cheeses from Italy and France. The Italians also use Fontina.
The key is to get the cheese when it is perfect and this is the challenge. If it is too young, it is to mild and doesn’t have a lot of flavor. Too mature and it tends to be oily and very strong and the rind is sticky. Still I lean towards the more mature. The cheese should have a dark beige rind with no cracks or reddening. The texture should be creamy and it should have a pungent aroma. Raclette stores very well in the refrigerator. Cut it when it is cold and bring it to room temperature before serving.
Today most Swiss prepare Raclette with electric machines. They can be bought from 1 to 8 servings and come with wooden scrapers and small non-stick palettes. The cheese is cut into squares the size of the palette and placed in the Racelette oven. The cheese melts and is scraped off onto a waiting hot plate. The biggest advantage to this method is that everyone can eat at his or her own pace and no one is slave to the preparation. A metal grill or granite piece covers the grill and keeps the plates warm. If the machine has a grill, meats or vegetables can be grilled at the same time. However, traditionally this was not part of the original dish.
Another version of the machine holds a half wheel of Raclette cheese. The cheese is secured onto a holding tray. The heating element is placed over the cheese and when the cheese melts it is scraped off with a knife onto a hot plate.
We have both machines and I prefer the half wheel machine, as the cheese tends to get slightly crispy on top giving it a smoky flavor. The disadvantage is that this machine is not inexpensive and is hard to find. The person preparing the cheese has to be dedicated to the preparation eliminating him/her from joining in the party. This type of machine is used in the mountains for large groups and during festivals and adds a lot of atmosphere to a party.
Boiled potatoes (Charlotte) and cornichons (French pickles) always accompany the cheese. A twist of a pepper mill is ground over the top. Small pickled onions and small pepperoncini peppers can also be served. I love the pepperoncini, which adds a little Italian twist to the dish. Covered cloth bags or baskets are specially made for holding and keep the potatoes warm. Dry white Swiss wines such as a Fendant or Lavaux (Epesses, St. Saphorin) is an excellent compliment to the cheese.
Most people tend to have this dish in the winter. It is perfect for an après ski dinner and we have had many evenings sitting around the table with a fire blazing after a day of skiing enjoying a Racelette dinner. But we have found it is a wonderful summer meal as well sitting out on the balcony enjoying the view of the mountains.
I always look forward to enjoying a dinner of Raclette. But be prepared to air out the room. When you’re enjoying this meal and savoring a glass of wine and good conversation, you don’t notice the aroma. Once the meal is over the smell of the cheese is overwhelming. Never-the- less, there is a block of Raclette in my refrigerator at all times during the winter.