When the cool fog starts rolling across Lake Zurich, and the neon green foothills begin showing white frosting on top, my thoughts immediately turn to the tastes of Swiss winter foods. Last fall during my first few months in Switzerland, I started hearing people talk about some Swiss dish called Raclette. I had heard the word a couple of times in Germany during conversations about different Christmas traditions, but I had little idea what it was; something about hot stones and cheese. So when I sat down for my first Raclette meal in Rapperswil, Switzerland, I had no idea what to expect. I especially did not expect the love affair that subsequently unfolded. “A meal made up of potatoes, melted cheese, and pickles?” I asked, “Am I in heaven?” Now I need only walk by the outside of a restaurant serving Raclette to be drawn in by the smell. Sometimes all it takes is seeing the packages of Raclette cheese in the grocery store and the next thing I know I am making the dish in my microwave at home. I’d call it a minor obsession.
I am clearly not the only one in love with the traditional Swiss dish however, as it has been around, nearly unchanged, for over 700 years. Raclette has now become popular in many other countries across Europe, North America, and even Australia. So what exactly is Raclette? The dish is said to have originated in the Valais region of Switzerland (home of the Matterhorn). The shepherds and farmers would eat Raclette while working up on the mountainsides. They would cook on open fire, boiling potatoes and melting Raclette cheese on the hot rocks. The word Raclette is derived from the French racler, which means, “to scrape”. The shepherds would use a special tool to scrape the cheese off the rocks, onto the potatoes, and would then complete the dish with small pickle-preserved vegetables. The cheese itself is what makes this very simple meal so special. While the unique pungent smell and flavor are what get my mouth watering, it is the consistency that makes it distinct. Raclette cheese is made from unpasteurized cow’s milk and is designed for melting. With the perfect balance of fat and moisture, Raclette cheese melts into a fantastic creamy texture, never separating or becoming oily, allowing it to blanket the tiny potatoes just right. Hungry yet?
Now of course today, Raclette is no longer made on hot rocks, although that does sound like fun. Since the 1970’s, electric or sometimes oil-burning Raclette grills have been become a staple in Swiss homes. The device, which comes in all different sizes and is placed in the middle of the dining table, looks like the common counter top grill, but includes a second compartment underneath with additional elements. Each person received what looks like an oversized square spoon and some kind of putty knife. The slice of cheese goes into the spoon and it is placed under the element. I like to add a slice of tomato as well. The grill on top is used for cooking small pieces of meat like chicken, shrimp, bacon, etc. This is a modern addition to the meal and one that my husband is thankful for. “A meal made up of just cheese, potatoes, and pickles?” he had first asked, “Can I order a steak too bitte?”
While waiting for the cheese to bubble, the traditional red and white plaid and burlap sack is passed around, full of tiny hot potatoes. The putty knife, or spachtel, is then used to scrape the cheese out onto the potatoes. In addition to lots of little pickled onions I also love to top off the dish with Raclette seasoning made of paprika, pepper, cumin, and nutmeg. The meal is to be accompanied by a Swiss white wine called Fendant, light beer, strong Kirsche liquor, or krauter tea.
Finally, just because Raclette is traditionally a winter dish, does not mean that it cannot be eaten in the summer. My mother came to visit from Canada this past August and I insisted she try it. We went to a lovely Swiss Restaurant in Zurich and ordered Raclette for two. The server had to come back three times to make sure she understood us correctly, and when we finally got the grill plugged in at our table, we then realized that ordering hot melted cheese in an un-air-conditioned country during a 36-degree heat wave, was a little crazy. But we sure enjoyed it!