In my youth, I set a personal best at Raclette with 13 servings. That would be 13 swipes of the knife as you see in this picture, 13 times the cheese was set before the fireplace until it became molten. I don't know what possessed me to perform such a stunt. That was back in my student days, living in Switzerland. Anything like it now would probably induce a heart attack.
But I still harbor a kind of secret obsession with Raclette. Whenever I see a fireplace, I imagine a shortened wheel of this semi-hard cheese positioned before the flames, waiting for that magical moment when the cheese just begins to run. Then quickly lift the wheel and, using the back of a sturdy knife, swipe the melting goodness onto a plate. Give it a good grind of black pepper and serve with simple boiled potatoes, cornichons and cocktail onions.
So it was that I began to conjure up images of a Raclette feast when my sister and her husband found new digs in a rental overlooking the Potomac River in nearby Virginia. This 60s-style bungalow has a cozy little fireplace in the living room. We immediately planted the idea of a Raclette dinner and last night our number came up. I brought a 4-pound piece of cheese, the pickles, the potatoes. Tom, my oenophile brother-in-law, provided the progression of white wines: a lovely California chardonnay, an herbacious sauvignan blanc from Bordeaux, and a wonderfully fruity pinot gris from Alsace. (In Switzerland, some eaters prefer hot tea with their Raclette in the belief that cold wine causes the molten cheese to form a ball in the stomach. Personally, I've never experienced that problem. But apparently, balls of cheese in the stomach are to be avoided.)
The meal itself couldn't be simpler. Tom had already started the fire. I positioned a cinder block in front of the fireplace and covered it with aluminum foil. The open face of the partial wheel of cheese was set on top of the foil to catch any drippings. All that's left to do is wait for the fire to have its effect on the cheese. Then quickly take the cheese in hand and scrape a portion onto a plate. That's the one drawback--or perhaps the charm--of Raclette: Only one person gets to eat the cheese at a time. You have to wait your turn, and that makes this a very casual meal, perhaps best taken while gathered around the fire.
At a certain point enough cheese has been scraped away to reveal a subtantial portion of rind exposed and dangling off the edges. It gets nicely caramelized and crunchy facing the flames. With the sharp side of the knife you can trim this crunchy rind onto the next eater's plate as an added bonus.
You can see why Raclette in its country of origin constitutes a basic peasant food among the cow herders who make the cheese, perfect for winter using potatoes from your root cellar and some of the vegetables you pickled in the fall. By all means serve some of your favorite bread. My sister also made a salad and a chocolate bundt cake for dessert.
You meat eaters might also consider a platter of salamis or perhaps some paper-thin slices of Switzerland's famous dried ham, Bundnerfleisch. Save any leftover cheese for your next fondue.