05 December 2009

La raclette

According to the Larousse Les Fromages book, written by the late gastronome Robert Courtine, la raclette is a typically Swiss dish. It originated in the Swiss canton called Le Valais. Raclette is both the name of the cheese and the method of melting and eating the cheese. It's pronounced [rah-KLEHT].

It's winter and the cheeses that the French markets and supermarkets are featuring prominently are Alpine cheeses, including Raclette, Reblochon, and Morbier. Reblochon cheese is used to make a hearty dish called la tartiflette, kind of casserole of sliced potatoes and pork lardons (chunks of bacon) smothered in cream and cheese. Reblochon is also often be served as part of a cheese tray or platter and, like Morbier, eaten just as it is, not melted.

Here's a pasteurized Raclette for just over U.S. $3.00/lb.
The more expensive Reblochon is made with raw cow's milk.

Raclette and tartiflette are dishes you eat after a day outside in cold weather — skiing or hiking in the mountains, for example. They are filling and give you energy to do it again tomorrow. But both are now served in all parts of France in the wintertime.

So what exactly is raclette? The cheese itself originally came from Switzerland but now is also produced in France. Raclette is shorthand for fromage à raclette, or raclette cheese. It's usually a rich cow's-milk cheese, but in this weeks supermarket advertising flyers I see at least one example of a goat's-milk Raclette.

For $8.75/lb. you can get pasteurized goat cheese (upper left)
for raclette.
For $6.75/lb. there's a thermalized cow's milk Raclette
(lower left). The Morbier cheese on the right is made with raw milk
and is an eating cheese , not a cooking cheese.

In other words, raclette cheeses have common characteristics, but they are not all identical in composition or made the same way. Some are made from raw milk, some from pasteurized milk. Most are made with cow's milk and some might be goat's milk.

The way you eat raclette cheese is to melt it and serve the melted cheese with boiled new potatoes, the little sour gherkins called cornichons, pickled onions, slices of ham like jambon de Savoie or prosciutto, sandwich-type boiled ham called jambon de Paris, dried or cured beef slices (viande des grisons), grilled bell peppers or mushrooms, steamed broccoli or cauliflower florets... whatever you like.

The Raclette on the right seems to come in both pasteurized
and unpasteurized versions. It sells for about $5.00/lb.
And there's another raw-milk Reblochon on the left.

Traditionally, a big round of raclette cheese, weighing up to 20 lbs., was cut in half, mounted on a special stand, and set on the hearth in front of a hot fire. As the cheese started melting, it was gradually scraped off onto warm plates and taken to the table, where all the garnishes were waiting. The French verb racler, from which the term raclette is derived, means "to scrape off" or "scrape out" and comes from Latin.

Nowadays, people have special raclette appliances the way you might have a fondue set. The raclette set is a electric heating unit that you set on the middle of the table and into which each person slides a little metal tray with some cheese in it. Often there's a grill or stone on top where you can cook mushrooms or sliced peppers as you go. When the cheese has melted in the little trays, you pull one out and eat the cheese with the vegetables and meats. It's hard to describe, but here's an example.

Years ago, before people had all these special-purpose appliances, I had raclette made by putting the cheese on a little plate, putting the plate in a medium oven, and then bringing it to the table warm after the cheese had melted. It was just as good but more trouble for the cook.

Robert Courtine says that la raclette is better, tastier dish than the typical fondue, which is cheese melted in white wine and often served only with bread. La raclette is a dish that « le gourmet préfère de loin aux fondues » — a dish that a gourmet prefers by far compared to fondues.

From a different supermarket, here's a Raclette
that comes in several styles, all aged for 10 weeks.

We've used raclette cheese on pizzas. It melts to a smooth, almost runny consistency, and it's delicious. Courtine says the Swiss cheeses traditionally used for la raclettefromages de Conches, de Bagnes, d'Anniviers, ou d'Orsières — have a flowery and creamy aroma that he attributes to the grasses and flowers of the pastureland where the cows graze.

As you can see from the ads I've scanned from the supermarket flyers we get in the mail every week, there are many types of raclette cheese to choose from, and the prices vary widely. You have to think a lot of people are making a raclette fairly often to use up all this cheese.

Note that all the cheeses in these ads are marked as « Origine : France ». None comes from Switzerland at all.


  1. Ken, My absolute favourite is the Morbier. Although it's a 'mountain' cheese, I discovered it in Britany. In the village of La Roche Bernard to be more precise. I think it's gorgeous, with his creamy yet firm structure and slightly nutty flavour.

  2. Raclette is delicious and fun for kids. Unpasteurized cheese tastes much better in my opinion.
    Do you guys have a raclette appliance? (Thank you so much for all the websites about the "harengs fumes". I hope you didn't dream of them last night).

  3. Our former German teacher used to treat us to Raclette once a year on one of our professional development days in the winter. She had one of those Raclette appliances you gave links to. I don't even know what cheese she used!

  4. I've had raclette a couple of times in Europe and once here at a church supper club called Holy Casserolers lol.

    I found a cheap raclette appliance on ebay and ordered it a minute ago. Now I'm wondering what kind of cheese I'll need to us? Daughter may have to bring it from Birmingham since we don't have any cheese stores here.

  5. Evelyn,
    You can order Raclette cheese online at Amazon. You can buy a half pound or more. Spend a little more for the good stuff!! Bon appetit!

  6. Fantastic educational piece on Raclette-- I love the quote from Robert Courtine, may I use it in my blog about stinky cheese?

  7. well, I don't agree with the gourmet :) I can't say I particularly like raclette, although the conviviality and lashings of wine that go with it partly make up for the indigestion! But a good fondue made with Swiss Gruyere is superb, and equally convivial.

    I prefer tartiflette to both though :) Reblochon is a gorgeous cheese, both in its raw state and cooked. One of my favourites.

    Evelyn: you live somewhere with *No Cheese Stores*?? Yikes! You must be a very long way from civilisation ...

  8. Very interesting. I'm glad you supplied those pictures of the table-top machine because I was trying to figure out how they would know when the cheese was ready to eat.

  9. Thanks for info, Hot Tamale. I have an intimate relationship with Amazon;-)

    Veronica, I live in Anniston Alabama;-) We have lots of good BBQ here, but no cheese shops. I live near I-20. I can be in Birmingham in an hour and Atlanta in 1 1/2 hours, so I get by.

  10. Starman, when you are sitting at the table, after you have put your little tray of cheese in the thing, you keep pulling it out to see if it has melted yet. It works.

    Veronica, cheese stores are not very common in the U.S. And it is pourtant a civilized place (some say).

    Evelyn, I'm not at all sure what kind of cheese you should use. Trial and error, I guess. I mean, what melted cheese is not good to eat?

    hotTamale, be my guest.

    Nadège, no, we don't have a raclette machine. And no, I'm not having any weird dreams about herrings! And by the way, I've had pasteurized camemberts, for example, that tasted way better than any unpasteurized one I've ever had. It's all a matter of ... trial and error.

    Ladybird, would you like to know what the gastronome R-J Courtine has to say about Morbier cheese?

  11. Evelyn, Veronica is one of those English people who lives in France but doesn't have much use for French gastonomes or French cookbook authors. That's what she told me, more or less. No offense, Veronica. That seems like a very English attitude to me. France would be a great place except for all the French people. Okay, now I know I've gone too far, but it is said.

  12. Ken your last comment made me laugh! Some people like to blend in, others don't.

  13. Ken,
    When we were in Thenay this year we went to dinner at the owners' house, Carol and Michael, and we had raclette there. It was very tasty.
    I love reblochon, but have to wait til I am in France to buy it as Australia has a policy of not allowing Cheese made with raw milk. They don't seem to notice that people have been eating it for centuries in Europe with no ill efffects. Just a tad insular you think?

  14. MDR, Ken. You know why. LOL

  15. Ken, Yes please, I'd love to know what Courtine has to say about Morbier. By the way you put it, I can already tell that it must be something peculiar ;)!

  16. well, I am offended now (sob). I can't remember ever saying that French gastronomy or French cookbooks didn't interest me. And I certainly have never said or even thought that "France would be a great place except for all the French people." Since I am happy to live in a village where there are no "expats" (thank God), almost all our friends are French, I'm not English but Scottish, and we acquired French nationality 18 months ago ago... well, words fail me. I had better stop commenting here since I've made a such a bad impression.

  17. Veronica, I'm sorry. I probably got the wrong impression. I was trying to be flip and funny... I do apologize for calling you English. :^)

    By the way, I'm American but my family always considered itself English, I think.

    And it's true that there are not dedicated cheese shops in most of the U.S. Cheese is sold in supermarkets, as is it in... Saint-Aignan, where the closest cheese shop is in Blois or Tours, an hour's drive from here.

  18. Vive la raclette. Mon plat préféré, et de loin !


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