During the two years I lived in Switzerland, I’d never heard the word “no” spoken so often and so eagerly. When crossing the street on early mornings against the walk light – and there is not a car to be seen – Swiss residents feel compelled to yell “Non! Non! Ce n’est pas possible!” At the post office, when you present some incorrect combination of change for your bill, you’ll hear “Tsk tsk” and “Non non” from the cashier, accompanied by an index finger waving. Other patrons will shake their head and mutter under their breath. And when sitting down to a traditional Swiss dinner, no other dish conjures up the word “no” more than raclette.
Raclette is a melted cheese dish that’s more delectable than fondue. It’s a semi-soft and quite funky cheese called raclette (from the French verb racler, to scrape). Traditionally, peasants would cut a wheel of raclette in half and put it in front of the fire until the top layer became melted and toasted. Then, this top layer was scraped onto a plate and the next layer was ready for melting. Today, there are raclette grills – table-top machines containing heating elements, like electric broilers, with cooking trays underneath. The raclette cheese comes pre-sliced for the trays and is set on the table along with cornichons (small French pickles), cocktail onions and little Dutch potatoes. Another favorite appetizer (entrée in French) or side is viande séchée – cured beef, similar to prosciutto. Dinner guests melt their own cheese in the machine at the table with these simple accompaniments, making this the second most popular cook-it-yourself dish in the country.
However, as the Swiss do, these alpine people have created such strict raclette rules as to almost take the joy out of eating it.
The first rule: no side dishes (or no grilling other foods on top of the raclette grill). The picture on the raclette machine’s box – and the recipe pamphlet inside – shows shiny shrimp, sharp white onions and long asparagus grilling on the top grill, even eggs cooking in the trays. But try preparing raclette this way for your Swiss friends, and you’ll hear an emphatic “Non! We do not eat raclette this way in Switzerland!” A finger will be wagging at you. They may even refuse to eat from a grill that cooks food other than raclette, like a gaggle of zealous cheesetarians. They are correct that raclette is delicious and hearty on its own, but topped with grilled onions and tomatoes served with shrimp and sweet-hot mustard on the side only heightens the flavors! And each time you cook a tray of bubbling, crusty cheese, you can create a different dish with a different combination of toppings. The possibilities are endless, and create opportunities for the dish to appeal to all kinds of eaters, allowing it to constantly evolve. This raclette is art.
Another rule: no water (or no drinks besides wine, beer or hot tea while eating raclette –and for two hours afterward). The argument is that anything besides these drinks will cause the raclette to congeal in your belly, committing you to the very painful process of passing a large ball of cheese the next day. If you ask for some water or another wrong drink (you’ll be thirsty, raclette is salty), Swiss servers will actually yell at you – “NON!” – for your stupidity, as if you want to deliver a cheese baby without an epidural. But, consider the amount of lubricating fat in the cheese, acids in your stomach and enzymes in your intestines – this is just plain science but don’t tell that to the Swiss. I’m happy to drink more wine to please the jovial watchmakers, who are glad you’re properly digesting all that cheese. Shooting kirsch is also highly recommended; they say it’s even better at aiding digestion!
Last rule: no empty trays. As soon as you scrape the hot cheese out of the tray, you must immediately fill it to be cooked again to crispy perfection while you eat. You are not allowed to stop cooking and leave the tray empty when you are no longer hungry….you must continue to cook cheese until the entire table agrees that the raclette is finished. Swiss servers and other diners will all yell at you for this one. It seems there’s no such thing as too much raclette.
Hey, some rules are made to be followed!
Wine Pairing: something crisp. The Swiss like to drink local, so different wine is drunk with raclette in each canton. But the most popular pairing is with Fendant, also called Chasselas grape. This is a high acid grape, which helps cut the buttery texture of the cheese and refresh your mouth. A light-bodied, high-acid red would also work, like a Burgundian Pinot Noir or Cru Beaujolais/Carbonic wine.