As the nights draw in and temperatures drop, France turns to cheese... melted cheese. Every winter, Insta accounts fill up with the hashtag #raclette or #fondue and images of cheesy revelry and happy faces. What's it all about exactly? What are these jolly gatherings, based on funny cheese-sharing contraptions?
Cheese on top
Originally from Switzerland, raclette traditionally involves applying the heat from a fire to the cheese of the same name, then scraping it over your plate, so that the melted part makes a topping for your side dish. Following the invention of the electric raclette machine in the 1950s, modern appliances are much more convenient and enjoying raclette with family and friends has never been so easy. A raclette machine can be round or rectangular and is placed at the center of the table. It consists of two plates fitted with heating conductors, between which you slide a mini-pan containing a slice of raclette cheese. After a few minutes, once the cheese has melted, you use a small wooden spatula to scrape it over some boiled potatoes. This feast is usually accompanied by various delicatessen meats and a few pickles. Modern takes on raclette are becoming more and more imaginative. As well as different types of raclette, (smoked, with wild garlic added, made with extra creamy Jersey milk...), other cheeses are getting a grilling: Morbier, from the Jura, Bleu du Vercors or Tomme sheep's or goat's cheese. The potatoes can also be supplemented with other vegetables, like roasted pumpkin, to offer a little light relief and add depth and color to the table. There is an ever wider range of charcuterie on offer, with new arrivals from Corsica, for example (Coppa, Lonzo…), and an increasing host of condiments: pickled mushrooms, dried tomatoes in olive oil... it's an almost endless array.
Side dish in
That's how fondue works. This Savoyard dish tops the menus of most ski resort eateries - after a long day on the slopes, a hearty meal is called for. For the perfect get-together, it's best to get hold of a proper fondue set: an earthenware or enamel pot with high sides, which is heated by a candle placed underneath, or sometimes electrically. Each guest is given a long fork, which they stick into a piece of bread (or a cube of boiled potato) before immersing it in the mixture of melted cheeses bubbling away in the pot in front of them. What about the cheeses? A mixture of Savoyard and/or Swiss specialties with different, complementary flavors, like Comté, Beaufort, Emmental and Gruyère. The inside of the pot is often rubbed with a clove of garlic cut in two first, to impart a slight aroma. It is also customary to add a pinch of nutmeg and a glass of crisp, dry Savoyard wine to the mixture, and to drink the same wine with the meal. Some folks don't mind adding a drop of kirsch to the mixture either, to enhance the fruity notes in the cheese, as well as a tiny amount of cornstarch to boost the creaminess. Then all you need to do is come up with some suitable forfeits for the clumsy diners who drop their pieces of bread in the pot!