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.
Discovered your blog from the Nestle site, and stumbled upon this great post on Raclette! Just returned from my first visit to Switzerland, where my husband and I were forced to figure out the “Raclette Rules” on our own — wish we had had your tips! We’ve since recreated the experience at home, and now have friends requesting a Raclette night dinner party — now I can offer them more guidance, and a few well-placed “nos!”
I’m so glad to hear it! I love having raclette dinner parties here…I can do whatever I want! 🙂 But I also love the traditional Swiss way too. Let me know how it goes.
I come from a Swiss family I lived in the French part of Switzerland when I was a little boy to live with my dad’s sister as I have bronchitis asthma or I would have died I was still bad so I lived in the mountain racklette is the most amazing meal we have it at my parents sometime with the big machine you crap I got a small machine with draws at home I did it for a friend ones she loved it I got to do it for more friends specifically as the cheese is so good for you
Raclette is poison for my husband. He had it twice, both in Switzerland. The last time he had it with only water, for lunch. He fainted at the airport, and had to wait another day to fly home. He got sick the first time too, not as bad. So he will never have it again. In addition it is very salty, and he should be careful with salt.
Hi! I’m living in Switzerland and I had fun reading you report. I’m sure it’s true in some places or with some people, but the rule are not everywhere so strict and I can’t imagine that somebody we know would complain if you don’t follow the rule (except of the rule of the water).
In my family we always have simple side dishes to raclette. The most important one is onion salad (example: https://artandkitchen.wordpress.com/2014/11/10/balsamic-onions/), but we also love the addition of fresh fruits like pears or raisins or vegetables like mushrooms (eventually grilled). It’s true many people don’t add nothing, but this is simply because it’s easier and quick. Some of them by onions, cornichons and other sides…from the jar, again because they want less work. Other people prepare raclette on a hot stone near the open fire outdoor, this is most traditional way, but it’s not easy to find this and it is not easy if you are not used to prepare it like this.
In any case we like raclette with small additions: the self prepared onions, baked potatoes, fresh fruits, mushrooms and so on; some of our friends do the same and it’s the best way for your stomach!
No water: yes this rule is usually strict, but you don’t have to drink wine, for children and for adults warm tea (any kind) is great as well. We drink water as well, but we don’t exceed with quantity of cheese. 3-4 slices each are enough.
We love sitting together and chat with the family or with the friends, for this reason we take always time and nobody has not to fill immediately the tray. Raclette is to enjoy, we don’t want to feel bad!
Thanks so much for your thoughts on this! The Swiss people you’re eating raclette with are far more flexible than the ones I ate with! I LOVE grilled mushrooms and onions with raclette, but I do have Swiss friends who refuse to eat it this way, and cluck at me when I do – even now. But I love to hear others’ views on the dish and also favorite side dishes so thank you. 🙂
Hi Liz you are welcome! One of my friends form Vallis (mountains) said that the onions are really important for the digestion while eating a lot of cheese. I did not find how it should works, but I’m sure that eating them (as well as other side dishes) it’s better for you stomach as you automatically eat less fat (cheese). 🙂
Evidently, you ate Raclette in the french part of Switzerland, where food rules are much stricter than anywhere else in the country. i grew up in the ‘Mittelland’ of Switzerland, where people have no such hangups.
Hi, I’m moitié moitié like the fondue, half Romande and half Swiss German, and I must say my Basel family never say Nein (nay!!) and love to grill everything on top. Who would have thought les romands sont tellement strictes! Digestion is key, so Kirsch is a must. Ps. I don’t like baked potatoes, roast potatoes for this Suissesse!
I just recently discovered raclette in our local commissary. The store carried Limburger in the past but stopped. When I asked why, they told me because often it would go past the expiration date on the package. I told her that is when it is the best! I asked them to bring it back, which they did. I noticed the wedges of Raclette near by and tried it. I loved it straight out of the wrapper with a hard roll. I went back to buy more. I will have to try it melted. Enjoyed your post.
Oh my gosh – it is EVEN BETTER melted! But not just melted…you have to broil the top so it’s melted and also brown and crispy on top. And pair that with a cooked potato, a little tomato slice, grainy mustard, cocktail onions and cornichons. Divine.
Liz thanks for all the info on Raclette. I have been to Switzerland many times and always enjoy a Raclette when I am there. I usually visit Crans in Vallais, Switzerland where the cheeses are made from the beautiful Alps cows who graze the Alps and produce some the most delicious cheeses in the world. I was raised by a Swiss mom who moved to the United States in the late 1950s. I was born in California where my mom and dad found a home for my family near Disneyland. I think you are right about the way Swiss Raclette is served when one is in Switzerland, but when I am here in California with my kids and family, all that is thrown to the wind. For the Raclettedinner, I serve a cheese here called Monterey Jack and sometimes Cheddar cheese and if I can get Raclette; which is seasonal, Iserve that with Cornishons from Trader Joe’s
( which are exactly like the Swiss ones) also prociouto and small potatoes from Traders Joes. I cook bacon or sausage on the top of the Raclette grill sometimes too. This last October, my daughter wanted Raclette for her birthday dinner, so I also got some cheese for a big fondue and boy was that delicious. Talk about a cheese overload. What fun Raclette and Fondue are to talk and drink while having a great dinner. I never listen to the rules of a country far far away. Make it your way: says the Swiss /American Man living in hot sunny California.
That is awesome! I love to make raclette the “American” way with all the fun fixin’s, but when I am back in Switzerland it is just the best! Even better when they give you tomatoes with it. 🙂
Ok so I’m Swiss/American currently living in Vaud, have been for 12 years, and not ONCE have I EVER been scolded for breaking any of these “rules”. I don’t know who you are eating raclette with, but they sound like nasty know-it-alls. Never being allowed to have an empty tray? BS. Nobody is going to force you. People will actually tell you DON’T FORCE YOURSELF because Swiss people are NOT heartless bastards who care more about keeping with some weird tradition than your health. They might poke fun of you because they are able to eat a lot more, but that’s it.
No side dishes?? What the hell??? Are you even aware that it is MEANT to be eaten on top of not just potatoes, but also roasted veggies and/or meat? And I don’t mean viande sechée (which, by the way, is a must-have side dish along with cornichons and salami in my family). I personally absolutely love putting tomatoes in the tray with the cheese. We have even combined raclette with charbonnade by using the top grill! DO WHATEVER YOU WANT!! The picture on the box looks like that for a reason. Don’t listen to these Swiss-germans saying we are stricter than they are, that is so false. Language does not influence the way we eat one of our national meals. The Canton you’re in does influence the wine though, I’ll give you that one.
Please stop making Swiss people sound like a bunch of cranky old people that are going to scold you like a child for breaking the “rules.” I’ve had Coca-Cola and water with raclette more times than I can count. I’m having raclette for dinner tonight and I will be having water with it because nobody is going to force me to drink alcohol. Saying servers will “yell at you”? Seriously? If that has happened you need to complain to the management because that’s not normal and extremely rude. This article is going to make people feel like they’re walking on eggshells over here. There’s no need to worry, we’re not going to bite your head off if you do any of these “taboo” things. Enjoy raclette however you want!!
Thanks for your comment! All the things I wrote in this were absolutely true when I lived in Switzlerand (Vaud also) in 2001-2002. Of course, not in every establishment, but in many, and I meant it to be fun and entertaining. Things have changed so much since then…I will find a way to reflect that in the post! Even my Swiss friend that used to chastise me now likes to put American Barbecue sauce on his raceltte. Sometimes the Swiss can be cranky and old; and also the Swiss are great and it is a wonderful country. Especially the cheese!
Glad to hear you coming around – I wasn’t quite sure whether your original comments were made in earnest or in fun. If you indeed encountered the somewhat rude no!s then you definitely chose the wrong places to enjoy raclette!
For the past 40+ years we get ourselves a wheel of raclette cheese most every year and invite friends (or are invited to friends) for an evening of raclette and never, ever, did we impose (or had imposed on us) any kind of rules … never heard of anything like you described, neither 40 years ago nor today.
Originally Swiss, for the past 32 years we resided in Canada and have invited Canadians, Americans, French, or friends of other origins, many of whom never had raclette before, to an evening of raclette and it was always a lot of fun.
I’ll never forget one particular evening years ago when a friend of ours from Barbados had it the first time – he’s a fairly small black guy – and loved it so much he could not stop eating that cheese to the point where he had to undo his belt and lay down flat on the floor (no harm done, he was fine) but hey, no rules!
We usually grill ham, prawns, pineapple slices, mushrooms, and what have you on top … no one has ever complained! And here is a TIP: Blanch some cauliflower florets, serve them hot and drizzle cheese over them same as you’d do with potatoes … delish!
Your article is very interesting.
I’ve visited my in laws and husband’s family.
I’ve been so many places in Switzerland.
Never did anyone say, “Non” to me or shake a finger at me. I’m surprised that you had that many experiences.
Everyone helped me and was friendly. The cashiers were helpful too.
Swiss to me, are the most generous, helpful and welcoming to others’ diversity.
I’m sad you were treated poorly.
I wasn’t treated poorly! It’s just that when the Swiss believe they are right, they say Non and shake a finger, tsk-ing. It has happened to me many times while I lived there…but I didn’t take it badly. I love the Swiss! And yes, they are generous and helpful and welcoming. As long as you don’t try to drink water with raclette. 😉