What Swiss farmers scrape together for dinner in the mountains
Dear friends of ours, Henry and Raquel, often host us for dinner. Henry is Swiss and one of my favourite dinners that they make for us is an authentic cheese fondue.
The other thing that I like about sharing dinner with Henry and Raquel is that we will often sit around enjoying one meal while happily discussing other favourite foods at the same time. Henry always spoke about Swiss Raclette with almost spiritual reverence but the discussion always ended with a blunt "you need a special oven to make it."
Another friend of mine hosted her German parents this past Christmas and was fortunate to be given a Raclette oven as a present. I borrowed the oven and promptly invited Henry and Raquel to dinner so that they might initiate us into the age old custom of enjoying melted cheese and potatoes.
Raclette is both a type of cheese and the special way to eat it. The word comes from the French verb racler which means to scrape. Traditional Swiss preparation is done by heating half a round of Raclette cheese in front of a fire and scraping the melted cheese onto a waiting plate of boiled new potatoes. It is often accompanied by pickles and a good fruity wine; Fendant, a white wine from Valais, is the wine of choice.
The origin of Raclette dates back several hundred years to when Swiss cow herders moved their livestock up into the mountains to graze on Alpine meadows during the warm summer months. Hiking up the mountains necessitated travelling as lightly as possible so only basic supplies were carried, like flour, potatoes, a round of cheese made from the milk of the cows, perhaps some pickles and a good Swiss wine. Simple tradition was born out of spending long, cool mountain evenings in front of a campfire eating melted cheese over potatoes.
These days there are special Raclette "ovens" which can be placed in the centre of the table that will heat the cheese and other meal accompaniments. Eating Raclette is enjoyable not only for its combination of soft melted cheese and comforting potatoes but for its slow, leisurely pace of eating in the company of family and friends. It is a social meal particularly suited to the mountain climate as the Raclette oven is a gentle source of heat for all diners. It is also a particularly satisfying meal after indulging in strenuous winter sports.
The Raclette oven looks like a portable grill with a broiler beneath it. They come with individual pans usually eight which are made of a non stick material for ease of cleaning; inevitably there will be a mess of stuck-on melted cheese. The pans also have little scrapers to help dribble the hot, bubbling cheese over the potatoes. Thin slices of cheese are placed in the pan which is then slid underneath the broiler to heat up, melt, bubble and brown (slightly).