Raclette is a signature culinary dish of 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.
One may 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 bioled potato.
Often thinly sliced, air-dried beef of the Grisons region of Switzerland is 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…
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.
Alpine restaurants will serve raclette (and portions will keep coming to the table until you say halt). Instead of a tabletop grill, resturants use a larger cheese heating apparatus that holds a cheese wheel wedge in a cradle in front of a heat source, and the cheese is sliced off as it heats.
In Europe, raclette is often served during the winter holidays, and the meal turns into a highly sociable evening with family and friends. The accent in raclette dining is relaxed and sociable eating and drinking, the meal often running late into the evening. Many families in the United States and other parts of the world also have discovered the fun of raclette.