Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Feb 20, 2011
01:41 PMSmall Dishes
Dipping and Grilling
Most of us have enjoyed fondue at one time or another. It originated in the French-speaking region of Switzerland as a cheese dish eaten from a communal pot. In various forms it had long been popular there when in the 1930s the Swiss Cheese Union promoted it as the national dish. Traditionally, fondue is made from Gruyère, Emmental or a blend of cheeses, white wine and kirsch. Usually a small amount of cornstarch is added to prevent separation. It’s made in a small pot set over a flame and eaten by dipping cubes of bread on long forks directly into the pot. The specialty made its way here in the 1960s, soon reaching the fad status of the hula hoop. As its popularity spread, many variations like chocolate fondue soon followed.
Much less known in the country is another popular Swiss cheese specialty, raclette. Think of it as a grilled Swiss cheese sandwich without the bread. Pronounced “rah-KLET, it’s long been a popular apres-ski supper. Unlike fondue, raclette is made from one ingredient: raclette cheese.
So the story goes, the concoction dates back to the time when cowherds would pasture their cattle high in the Alps. At night, they would set a wedge of cheese next to the campfire, scraping off each layer as it melted, using it as the foundation for a rustic meal. The word raclette comes from the French verb racler which means “to scrape.” With the passage of time, the meal moved indoors and it became a wintertime treat, made by the embers of the fire.
A semi-firm cheese dotted with small holes, raclette is aged three to five months and is pale yellow, has a nutty flavor similar to Gruyère and a natural rind that is edible. The cheese is imported form both Switzerland and France and is made in New Glarus, Wisconsin by Roth Käse.
Today, raclette is most often prepared using one of two different electric devices. Most popular for home use is a double-deck grill: individual cooking trays on the bottom for the cheese and a flat surface on top for meats, vegetables and bread. Most often at restaurants, a half-wheel of cheese is supported in a rack under a quartz heating element that melts the top layer for scraping. Depending on their size, raclette grills start in price at about $100.
The traditional accompaniments for the dish are boiled potatoes in their skins, French cornichons (sour gherkins), lots of freshly ground black pepper and cured meats. Raclette parties have slowly but surely gathered an enthusiastic following in this country. No doubt part of the appeal is their communal nature and that not everyone is ever served at once. You chat with friends, drink some wine, have a little raclette and then start the whole process over again. The conversation is amicable and bubbly, the wine clean and crisp, and the cheese warm and creamy. It’s an unpretentious and novel way to entertain a large group and pleasantly pass a winter’s evening.
If you don’t want to spend a hundred bucks for a grill, you can make raclette in your oven. Use an ovenproof, nonstick skillet or griddle. Cut the raclette—you can leave the rind on or take if off—into 1/4- to 1/3-inch-thick slices and cook at 425 degrees until the cheese melts (about five to six minutes). Or, do the old-fashioned way with your fireplace. Set half a wheel (or a large chunk) of cheese on a tile or pizza stone with the cut edge as close to the fire as possible. As the cheese melts, scrape it off.
Give each guest a fork and a plate with a boiled potato—waxy potatoes like Yukon Gold are best. Have the guest smash the potato; then scrape some melted cheese over the top. Let guests help themselves to the peppermill and other side dishes. In addition to the prerequisite black pepper and cornichons, pickled onions, Prosciuto, salami, summer sausage, sliced tomatoes, anything else that goes with melted cheese goes with raclette. If you want to turn it into a complete repast, add a green salad and some fresh pears or apples for dessert. Chocolate would be good, too—this is a Swiss meal after all.
If you want to be authentic, for wine serve a Swiss Chasselas, but a Riesling or chardonnay, or even a young pinot noir would be very compatible—and, of course, beer.
The snow is falling…again … it’s still cold outside and the perfect weather for fondue or raclette.
Places to buy cheese for raclette and fondue:
Where to buy raclette grills and fondue pots:
Raclette grills and fondue pots
Large selection of raclette grills of all types
Restaurants that feature raclette and fondue:
Raclette and fondue
Fondue for lunch on Wednesday and Saturday
Many varieties of fondue, traditional and not so