Back in the late 1980's I was a technical advisor/member of the US COCOM delegation. We met periodically at the US Embassy Annex in Paris with other member delegations to negotiate the export control lists.
My wife and I had traveled twice previously to France/Paris on vacations when we lived in Germany, but our experiences had always been somewhat frustrating since neither of us (nor our son) spoke much French. My son who attended German schools spoke fluent German, my wife spoke fluent Spanish (with some Italian) with decent spoken German as well, and I understand German fairly well, had a BA, MS, and PhD in Korean language & literature with minors in Japanese and Chinese--but we were treated like uneducated bumpkins because of our very limited, halting French.
Traveling in a delegation with several French speakers and dining with international colleagues while in Paris for negotiations, however, proved much more gemütlich. Since I was normally in Paris for two weeks at a time, I started studying guide books to take best advantage of sights to see and take advantage of the food specialties available in Paris.
I used to stay at a very small hotel, the Roblin, near the Madeleine , across from Hediard Tea (where you can find a marvelous assortment of almost every imaginable tea), and down the road from Fauchon . Fauchon is a gourmand's paradise, as much a feast for the eyes as is it for the palette.
Studying the guidebooks, I came across a reference to raclette--a Swiss country dish that originated warming cheese in a pan by a fire and scraping (French: racler = to scrape) the melting cheese onto boiled potatoes, a crusty bread, ham, etc., accompanied by cornichons and a good wine (I like a nice Cotes du Rhone). Researching, I found that there was a Swiss fondue restaurant, which also offered raclette, within walking distance of my hotel, so I went. None of my colleagues wanted to come, all saying that fondue was for tourists. So I went alone.
I was seated at a small table alone and ordered. The first thing the waiter brought out was a large device (see 2nd picture above or click here) which turned out to be a crystal heat lamp that quickly produced heat sufficient to melt the cheese, and a very large hunk of cheese. I was served a basket of boiled, new redskin potatoes, a crusty baguette, a small plate of cornichons, and the wine I ordered. I timidly scraped some of the melting cheese onto a small plate, cut one of the potatoes in half, spread some cheese on it, popped it into my mouth and tasted. Good grief! It was wonderful. I had been wondering how I'd manage that large chunk of cheese and all the potatoes and bread. It was surprisingly easy as I then tucked right in!
I really wanted to share my experience and joy with my family and (eat it again myself). But I couldn't find raclette cheese in Bavaria for quite awhile thereafter and didn't know about other suitable cheeses yet.
Finally, I did find it and set about making a meal for my family. I had gotten a nice baguette, bought French cornichons, and boiled up a pot of baby redskin potatoes. I figured I'd melt the cheese in chunks in the microwave.
My wife was upstairs as the meal was about ready and I began melting the first chunk in the microwave and the very "stinky" odor of the raclette cheese began wafting upstairs. My wife later "confessed" that she was thinking, "How can I tell him I can't eat this! It smells like a gym locker. Yuck!" But being a"good sport", she tried a couple of mouthfuls. Bam! Another convert! It is delicious.
French Morbier cheese is also an excellent raclette cheese, not so pungent, but a fine flavor with very good melting qualities. It is marked with an ash line down the middle like a number of cheeses.
We came across another mildly pungent cheese that is a good-melter while in Germany, butterkaese, which was used by our neighbors in Bavaria and which became a favorite with our kids in making raclette. Bavaria produces a number of excellent cheeses, many of them pungent.
Also, after moving back to Germany afew years later, we also first saw a different kind of raclette melter/cooker--see the machine on the right. It has a grill plate on top of the heating element which allows you to grill sausages, meats, onions, peppers, etc., while it also has eight popsicle-shaped metal "pans" with non-heat-conducting handles for melting individual portions of cheese under the heating element at the same time. It has a rheostat for regulating the heat of the element.
I recommend you try raclette and, if you love it, as we do, consider one of these machines.
For some recipe ideas, click here.