Until last night, I was a Raclette Virgin. My friends around the supper table wouldn’t believe it….couldn’t believe it. To have lived in the Haute Savoie for over a decade and never done Raclette……”NEVER”? they quizzed, dumbfounded “Never EVER?” It was as though they had discovered I’d never ridden a bicycle or been in a Museum. Christian joined his hands, bowed his head and said I deserved a monument “L’église de la Vierge de la Raclette.” “La Vierge de la Raclette, priez pour nous” he intoned as The Cheese Ceremony began.
Raclette is more than just a cheese, it is an Alpine tradition, eaten religiously in some households every Saturday night. Sister to the fondue, made individually by each diner at the table, it is served as small (raw) slices, accompanied by boiled potatoes, ruffles and rosettes of thinly sliced cured hams and salamis (“charcuterie”) and bowls of gherkins and pickled silver-skin onions. According to Diana Henry in her wonderful book “Roast Figs and Sugar Snow” my bible of cold weather cooking “Raclette is an ancient mountain cheese made in the French Savoie and the Calais region of Switzerland. Once heated, on a grill, it becomes sweetly savoury and wonderfully elastic, perfect for scooping up with bread or potatoes.”
Diana Henry quotes the cookware company Le Cruset as reckoning that two in every ten British households owns a fondue set. Certainly, this might have been true in the ‘Seventies, when fondue parties (and, let’s face it, wife swapping…see “The Ice Storm” film) were all the rage, but nowadays, I dunno. There is a storm of protest over posters of “Your Thighs on Cheese” which have been posted on highways in upstate New York -ironically just before this weekend’s ice storm – by a vegan advocacy group in a campaign against dairy foods, to spread the message that meat and dairy will make you fat. Fondues, raclettes and their other sister Tartiflette (potatoes boiled, sliced, sautéd in butter with diced fat bacon, then covered with slices of Reblochon cheese and spoonfuls of crème fraiche and baked in the oven) have never gone out of fashion in Switzerland the French Alps. It is, however, winter food and sun-burned tourists who order these heavy dishes outdoors on a balmy evening are of course served, but dismissed as …..well, tourists…..by wait staff in lake-side restaurants. However, so loyal are natives and besotted skiers to their cheese-based dishes, that it is not unusual to see cars in our area with the bumper sticker “In Tartiflette we Trust”
At the Fete de St André market in the first week of December in Annecy, raclette is cooked on the city streets in huge half moons over a burner. When hot, the cheese is dolloped and spread onto halved baguettes and squidged together again over a good scoop of frites, to be eaten on the hoof with mulled wine or cider. Last night, sitting around the table, each diner was given a little square pan and a wooden scraper. In the centre of the table was an electric grill, with space for eight of these pans. A basket of bread, plates of sliced raclette cheeses, charcuterie, gherkins and onions was passed around. While our cheese was cooking, we helped ourselves to boiled potatoes from the bowl on top of the grill, and by the time a potato was cut on our plates, the bubbling cheese was ready to be scraped from the pan directly onto it and eaten with the meat.
I lost my raclette virginity last night with affectionate bantering, community support, guidance and mutual enjoyment, minimum fuss and maximum pleasure.
But I durst not look at my thighs this morning…….