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Examples of French Raclette cheeses in retail display Examples of French Raclette cheeses in retail display

By Rachael Lucas

For some of us, winter truly is the most wonderful time of the year. 

Many people love it because of the holidays, cozy bouts by the fire, sweater season, or longer nights of sleep.  For curd nerds, however, winter means one thing:  Raclette.  For us, it’s that ooey-gooey, molten stuff which lives on our potatoes and pickles that ablazes the shorter days.

Scraping Raclette onto potatoes PicmonkeyScraping brown and bubbly Raclette onto potatoes       Photo by Scott Zwink

Raclette is mentioned in medieval texts from convents in Switzerland dating back to nearly 800 years ago.  It was initially considered to be food for peasants who lived in the Swiss Cantons of Valais and Fribourg, as well as the commoners residing in Haute-Savoie and Savoie, France.   It is a raw cow’s milk, washed rind mountain cheese that was originally carried along by cow herders who would roast it on the fire in the cool evenings.

The French infinitive racler means to scrape. From this, the infamous nomen du fromage was born.  This cheese is indeed meant to be scraped with a knife.  Historically, it was heated in front of an open fire with the paste facing the heat.   Once its paté was adequately melted, it was then shaved off the wheel onto food.  Raclette was traditionally served over potatoes, cornichons, pickled onions, and dried meat such as salami.  Today, with an abundance of victuals at the ready, we can scrape it onto anything we want.  Some of my favorite foods to scrape it on are cruciferous vegetables, crusty bread, pickled radishes, and ham. 

Alpine cheeses are not small, and Raclette is no exception.  Let’s be real, most of us are not going to spring for an entire wheel of cheese, just to do it like they did in the olden days.  Fortunately, there are kits that can be bought.  They vary in size and purpose.  My buddies who own a local bar have a Raclette melter with a heating lamp, and it holds a half wheel at once.  They scrape it onto fresh bread and call it their House Grilled Cheese.  You could get one that holds a quarter wheel of Raclette, and it would be the talk of your next party.  These types of Raclette melters serve one person at a time. 

If you’re looking for something quaint that allows for everyone to participate in the activity, you can get a kit like mine.  It has eight sliding griddle spatulas that hold one slice of Raclette each.  You slide the slice under electric heat where it essentially broils.  Meanwhile, above the heat, there is a large griddle where you can grill vegetables, ham, and whatever else.  This is wonderful for entertaining because each guest can grill her own combo of morsels and melt the cheese to her satisfaction.  I prefer mine to develop brown bubbles—I get more umami from slightly burnt cheese.

Rachaels Dad at Raclette melter PicmonkeyDr. E.J. Fitzgerald loves a good combo of Raclette morsels and family interaction. Fret not, you don’t have to own a Raclette melter to enjoy this rich, hearty fromage.  Being superb in its purpose, you can use Raclette in just about any dish that requires a strong melting point.  It can be added to fondue, mac and cheese, grilled cheese, and cheese soup.  I love to use it in scalloped potatoes, smothered over roasted cauliflower (and broiled), and on cheese toasties for breakfast.  For a memorable burger, melt the cheese in a small cast iron skillet, spill it onto your patty capped with pickled onions, and then snuggle it with the top bun.  You can thank me later. 

If you feel like upholding tradition, you could use Kirsch (cherry brandy) as a pairing liquid.  Tea and Pinot Grigio are also well known Raclette couplings.  I like it with malty beer or a bold red wine that tastes of cigar box and Aunt Alice’s attic.  Raclette has a slightly funky aroma due to the wash on its rind, but when melted, it is rather innocuous.  As such, it makes for an amicable coupling with most anything. 

Take note that Raclette is delicious al fresco, as well.  You will find hints of roasted hazelnuts and everything that organic, mountain pasture entails.  Try it with coffee for a mouthful of toasted nuts and hints of smoke.  Add it to your next cheeseboard for its velvety texture and shock factor—most people do not consider Raclette for anything other than melting.

Clearly, Raclette is an extraordinary fromage.  It is truly more versatile than the peasants who invented it could have imagined.  Back then, they were merely attempting to preserve milk through the cold months.  They learned over time that when melted, Raclette had a certain je ne sais quoi that was incredibly satisfying.  

Nowadays, we have access to many varieties of this cheese.  It is made at an industrial level, as well as artisinally, by which the make and aging methods that have been utilized for centuries are implemented.  You can even find Raclette in various milk-types, most notably goat’s milk.  Moreover, we have some outstanding domestic versions.  My favorite is Reading Raclette from Vermont.

This winter, I encourage you to play around with this superstar mountain cheese.  Ask your cheesemonger about the Raclette that she carries.  Does she have a variety?  Request tastes to determine if you prefer the Swiss, the French, or the domestic stuff.  Can you taste the difference?  The price point for Raclette is reasonable, so we really have no excuse to not welcome this cozy fromage into our chilly situation.  Happy winter, folks, and joyous Racletting!

 

Rachael Lucas with cheese wheels MUG

Editor’s note:   Rachael Lucas is an American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional (CCP).  She also has the distinction of being one of forty-six people in the country with the ACS C.C.S.E. (Certified Cheese Sensory Evaluator) accreditation.  You can most often find her cheesemongering in the Seattle area.  When she's not working with cheese, she's eating it, talking about it, reading about it, writing about it, and dreaming about it.  She can be reached with inquiries about fromage and food excitement in the Seattle area at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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