Raclette Is Fondue’s Tastier and Lesser-Known Cousin
Imagine sitting down at a restaurant on a cold winter night. You're surrounded by friends and bottles of wine. In the background, there's a cozy fire that is working hard to melt a large ball of cheese that will eventually be scraped onto your plate.
Sounds like heaven, doesn't it? The good news is that you don't have to work all your life to earn this bliss. You simply have to find a place that serves raclette. Coming from the French word "racler" or "to scrape," this Swiss dish isn't as well known as its first cousin, fondue. We want to change that.
Welcome to the wonders of melted cheese.
A Brief History of Melting Cheese in the Alps
Life in the Alps has always been good. Yes, winters are harsh, but the region is undeniably beautiful. Also, the people who've lived here are clearly geniuses, enjoying dishes made with melted cheese as early as the 13th century.
Cow herders and other peasants would carry blocks of cheese as they moved around pastures. Rather than just popping the cheese into their mouth, they'd melt it over a campfire and eat it with bread. This eventually morphed into several dishes, including the famed fondue and, of course, raclette.
What Is Raclette?
As the name suggests, raclette is made by melting cheese and scraping its gooey goodness right on top of other foods. (More on that later.) Large blocks of cheese are cut in half and placed in specific stands near heat. Traditionally, a large central fire is used, but restaurants now often use individual stands for single tables.
Either way, it's so special that it's considered a national dish. Coming from Switzerland's Valais region, raclette's eponymous cheese has "appellation d'origine contrôlée" status, meaning that it can only be made in this part of the country — sort of how Champagne can only come from the French region of Champagne.
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Is Raclette the Same as Fondue?
Go ahead and say this to a Swiss or French person if you want to piss them off. Yes, both dishes come from the Alps and are made by lathering foods with melted cheese. But you wouldn't say a burger and a sandwich are the same, even if they both consist of cheese, meats and veggies stuffed between bread.
To eat fondue, you dip pieces of bread into a pot of cheese using elongated forks. Fontina, Gruyère and gouda (or a combination of the three) are commonly used, making for a smooth and creamy dipping cheese.
Raclette, on the other hand, uses, well, raclette cheese. (Though other cheeses also work — don't tell any Swiss people we said that.) The cheese melts in parts rather than as a whole, and its usually thicker and sharper than fondue. Instead of putting the foods in the cheese, you cover everything on your plate with the flavorful scrapes.
What Foods Are Served With Raclette?
Another difference between fondue and raclette is that fondue is typically eaten only with bread. For traditional raclette, however, you'll be enjoying potatoes, pickled cucumbers (called cornichons) and round pickled onions.
Dried meats such as salami and other Swiss and French sausages also tend to accompany the raclette table.
The Convenient Drinking Rules of Raclette
The worst faux-pas you can make in a raclette dinner is to ask for water. White wine is a good drink choice, but if you don't want alcohol, you should ask for black tea. Apparently, there's an old wives' tale about how drinking water will make the cheese harden in your stomach, causing indigestion.
We're sure the Swiss now know this isn't the case, but they're still very strict about the water rule. No one is complaining, though. After all, who's ever swooned over pairing water and cheese?
The Raclette Wars: Switzerland vs. France
Raclette is Swiss in origin but, like fondue, it is often associated with France, where it's also popular.
Which country does it best? We like that the French usually have individual ovens for a table, so you can scrape the cheese whenever you want without getting up.
The traditional Swiss method is a bit inconvenient. However, the wood fire imbues the cheese with a smokey deepness that simply can't be replaced. Because of this, we'll give the raclette crown to the country that invented it.
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Raclette Fusion Is a Gift of Globalization
We love and respect culinary traditions. But we also think that fusions may be the best thing about living in modernity. Of course, try Swiss raclette first. But once you know what that amazing experience is like, go out and search for fusions. Trust us, you will not be disappointed.
One of the most popular is gourmetten, the Dutch take on raclette. The concept is the same, but the foods served with cheese are less limited. You may find items like asparagus, mushrooms, chicken and pepper.
Similarly, we've been to a raclette restaurant in Seoul, South Korea, that put cheese on Korean dishes like pork belly BBQ and seafood. We cannot wait to see this begin to happen with other cuisines — someone invent raclette carnitas, ASAP!
Street Food to the Rescue
While we wait for fusion restaurants to wake up to the magic of raclette, street food is filling the gap all over the world. Outside of Switzerland and France, it will probably be easier to find raclette at a stand or a food truck.
Places like Czechia, New York City and London offer the dish in a more informal setting than the traditional sit-down restaurant. Usually, you'll get a small plate filled with potatoes, meats and cornichons and then get the cheese melted right on top of it.
The downside is that you don't get a dinner that lasts for hours, in which you eat more cheese than should be humanly possible. On the plus side, it can serve to taste the dish before committing to a sit-down dinner.
Where to Try Raclette in the U.S.
It's surprisingly and dishearteningly difficult to find raclette restaurants in the U.S. Thankfully, it's not impossible.
The best spot is Stable Washington D.C., where you'll also find other traditional Swiss and French food. Or go to New York's Café Paulette for dinner to pretend like you're actually eating this dish in France. Cocotte in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, has a raclette brunch that puts any basic eggs-benedict-and-French-toast brunch to shame.
Final Verdict: Fondue vs. Raclette
Which one is better, fondue or raclette? This is a question for the ages that nevertheless has a clear answer in our very biased opinion.
Let us preface this by saying that we think both dishes are one of the best foods ever invented and thank the Swiss for their service to humanity. But if we had to pick, raclette would be the clear choice.
While fondue is delicious, we usually want a little more than bread and cheese for our dinner. Also, raclette's thickness means you get more cheese with every bite — and we always want more cheese. And while we love soft cheeses, the sharpness of raclette on top of pickled vegetables creates a wonderfully distinctive contrast of flavors.
In the (near) future, we hope to live in a world where both dishes are as readily available as burgers and fries.