Tonight We Dine on Raclette

Image of a tabletop raclette grill, surrounded by dishes of deli meats, and pickled vegetables
Photo Credit: Klaus-Dieter Keller

I’m all about adaptability in the meals that I most enjoy. Something about being able to personalize each and every instance of preparing a dish speaks to the creative side of my nature. The raclette grill in my kitchen has afforded me limitless opportunity, not to mention countless delicious, easily-prepared meals, in that regard.

The warm cheese dish known as the raclette originated centuries ago in the Swiss canton of Valais, where herdsmen and farmers first made midday or evening meals of potatoes, pickles, and Swiss cow’s milk cheese that had been melted by campfire or hearth. The term “raclette” derives from the French verb “racler”, meaning “to scrape”, owing to the manner in which the melted cheese is scraped off the block. The word refers to the cheese used, but can also be applied to the meal, both of which date as far back as the year 1291, a time when it was called Bratchäs, which in Swiss-German means “roasted cheese”. Nowadays, raclette cheese is produced in Germany, France, Austria, and Finland, and even overseas in places like New Zealand, Australia, and the United States.

The traditional raclette machine consists of a platform onto which one secures a quarter- or half-round of cheese, and a heating element in an arm that gets positioned over the cheese. The cheese soon softens, and a raclette knife is used to scrape its melting richness onto a plate of boiled potatoes and assorted pickled garnishes to which paprika and freshly-milled black pepper are generously applied.

As all good things must evolve, though, so has it gone with the raclette. Today the rising popularity of raclette grills allows anyone to experience an in-home variation of the raclette. As a raclette grill owner, I can attest to the enjoyment to be derived from its communal-style cooking and serving source. Consider also that its most significant characteristic is the bringing together of various food items with a layer of melted cheese, and it is difficult not to think of the raclette as a cousin to cheese fondue. The grill consists of a flat surface upon which to place meats and vegetables, and beneath which small individual serving trays filled with cheese and other ingredients can be placed. Heating coils beneath the cooking surface melt the cheese over the foods, which one can then enjoy with potatoes and pickles.

As part of its evolution, the potatoes and pickled garnishes typical of the raclette are nowadays joined by a constantly-expanding collective of items that pair delightfully with a warming blanket of cheese. Vegetables such as gherkins, baby carrots, pearl onions, and mushrooms are a few examples of healthy, hearty foods that are big on flavor and lend themselves well to the raclette. Meats like chicken, beef, and even cured meats like ham and prosciutto-my personal favorite-also swim ably in that molten sea, as do thin cuts of your favorite fish.

The raclette, like the Japanese kaiseki ryori style of cooking and eating, is perhaps the chief reason that food customs continue to fascinate me. They serve as an ever-present reminder that some of the world’s most enduring and delicious and foods originated not only far across the seas from where I sit writing this article, but in eras before my great-grandparents were born. It is why I continue to equate exotic cuisine with time travel, and why I hope that if readers come away from these writings with anything, it is my invitation to travel through time on their own, one meal at a time.

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