Raclette is an experience with a history
The word raclette is French from the word racler which means to scrape. It would be logical to assume it is eaten by scraping, which it is. It originated in the canton of Valais, Switzerland and is a semi hard cheese originally made with unpasteurized milk. Legislation in Switzerland forbids this now and it is commonly produced using pasteurized milk nowadays. The texture is quite firm with tiny little bubbles – the flavour cannot be described in words suffice to say that its buttery, but not quite buttery and has an aroma which I can only call heavenly ……… I am subjective though and cannot be objective about something that has to be experienced to be understood.
The Fromageries Riches Monts are the largest producers of Raclette in the world, but many smaller companies and cheesemakers produce this cheese and the one Thierry, buys in Switzerland from a really small cheesemaker outside Neuchatel must be the best in the world. It is primarily the herbs that the cows eat on the various mountains that influence the milk and gives different flavours to the same cheese. For this reason it is always a matter of preference, rather than ‘who makes the best’ in Switzerland. All Swiss cheese is good. Ideally one should go from region to region and taste. I volunteer for that job anytime! Whilst it originated in Valais the cheese is now produced in Savoie and Franche-Comté. On the 20th of June 1984 a statutory order was made in which the characteristics of the cheese were defined. It read: .. an uncooked pressed cheese made with cow’s milk and contains at least 45 grams of fat per 100 grams of cheese. It has to mature for eight weeks which start on the day it was made.
There are many legends surrounding this cheese, my favourite being this one. Towards the end of the 19th century a grape picker in Valais had finished for the day and took his bread and cheese out of his sack to warm himself by the fire whilst he ate. He stabbed the cheese with his knife and it accidentally started to melt when it touched the burning vine branches into a soft golden crispness, which he tasted. Everyone around the fire tasted it as well and soon they all discovered that melted cheese and bread makes a darned good meal! There is also the one where the Swiss cow herders did much the same thing whilst they were moving cows from pasture to pasture and rested at night and that happened in the 16th century. Both are probably true but the timing of the second story seems more accurate to me because Valais is a medieval canton and cheese-making started 4,000 BC. I cannot believe that it would have taken the Swiss any longer to have figured that out. However, I like the idea of the vine branches. Whatever the truth, it became the national dish of Valais.
There is more than one way to eat it – the orginal and best way is by cutting the huge cheese in half, putting one half next to a wooden fire and when the cheese melts, the racleur scrapes the melted cheese onto the plate. It is then eaten with potatoes, bread and sliced dried meats (charcuterie). That is called the Alpine method. The other method is the first one I tried in Stellenbosch in which a piece of electronic equipment is used to make it – absolutely delicious fun, but now that I have tasted the real thing in the right place, there is no turning back.
It is usually served with warm tea or Fendant made from the chasselas grape which is the preferred wine for people like me. One could also serve any Savoie wine, a riesling or a pinot gris.
And the best raclette I have ever had? In the mountains of Sion, the capital of Valais which is proteced by the two castles, the Château de Valère and the Château de Tourbillon and also the third largest wine producing region in Switzerland a tiny little woman, one Suzie Fontannaz made it for us. It was the most beautiful Christmas and the best raclette and if my other two boys had been with me, it would have been my most perfect Christmas!
So try it.