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FOOD & DRINK

Rules of Raclette: How to make France’s cheesy winter classic

It's one of France's most popular winter dishes - a hearty confection of meat, potatoes, pickles and lots of melted cheese. Here's what you need to know about creating a classic raclette.

Meat, potatoes, pickles and cheese all make a raclette
The raclette grill melts the cheese ready for pouring. Photo: The Local

As befits a culture that takes its gastronomic heritage seriously, making a foodie faux pas as a foreigner in France can provoke a pretty strong reaction.

Photos of tourists eating croissant with a knife and fork or leaving the edges of their cheese were branded ‘an insult to France’ by outraged gastronomes, one of whom said she was close to fainting.

And The Local’s Europe editor Ben McPartland found himself in hot water with a cheese shop owner when he proposed putting the wrong cheese in a fondue.

The popular classic raclette has its own rules – here’s what you need to know;

READ ALSO Best briehaviour: A guide to French cheese etiquette

Where?

Well first of all even mentioning it on a French site is controversial, as the dish is actually Swiss in origin.

The cheese originally comes from the Valais canton in Switzerland, whose inhabitants also came up with the brilliant idea of melting it and pouring it all over meat and potatoes to create the dish of the same name.

But although it’s not actually French it is very widely eaten in France, particularly in the east of the country.

When?

The dish is pretty much a winter thing – rivers of oozing melted cheese perhaps not being particularly appealing when the temperature is topping 30C.

It’s particularly popular as an après ski dish, as you will need to be doing a fair amount of exercise to burn off the calories in a raclette dinner.

What?

Here we stumble intro controversy again. 

The formation of the dish raclette is very simple – melt some raclette cheese (special raclette grills are available for devotees, although you can also melt it under the grill) and then pour it over stuff.

Exactly what you pour it over, however, is where things get tricky.

Potatoes – usually boiled – are a staple as are sliced cold meats such as ham or charcuterie. Pickles such as cornichons and pickled onions are also pretty universal as the sharp vinegary taste is perfect to cut through the richness of the cheese.

Vegetables of the non-pickled variety are a bit of a grey area, however.

When Brit Katie Aidley posted a picture on Twitter of her raclette with a variety of grilled vegetables and no meat she was firmly informed Désolée mais ce n’est pas du tout une raclette (Sorry, but that is in no way a raclette).

 

However, food historians have since pointed out that during the Middle Ages a Swiss raclette would have involved  vegetables (albeit mainly pickled as fresh vegetables would not have been available in the depths of winter) and it is in fact the meat that was the later addition.

A few vegetables definitely lighten up what can be a very heavy dish, but maybe it’s best to do this slightly furtively in your own home.

What to accompany it with?

White wine is best, or vin jaune if you’re in one of the regions that produces it, as something crisp to cut through the fatty mass of cheese is nice.

There is  a Swiss belief that you should never drink water with raclette as it will cause the cheese to solidify into a giant ball in your stomach, although quite frankly we’re not sure that medical science would back that one up.

But if you prefer your cheese less contentious – here are the six best French winter dishes made with cheese.

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FRANCE EXPLAINED

Apéro to digestif: What to expect from every step of a French dinner

Whether it's Christmas dinner with your French in-laws or a meal with some new friends or neighbours, after you have been in France for some time you will probably be invited for dinner in a French home - so what should you expect and what manners do you need to know about? 

Apéro to digestif: What to expect from every step of a French dinner

In France, like every other country, manners and formalities vary – where you are in France, the age of the people you are socialising with and the social setting will all have an impact – some families are very formal and traditional while others are more casual.

Naturally the occasion matters too – a formal state dinner is very different to being invited round for a family meal with some parents from your kids’ school.

But here is a guide to some of the things you can expect, the first thing being that – in general – French dinners last longer than in the anglophone world and have several different courses, with short pauses in between that are intended to help facilitate socialising.

When you walk into your French friend’s home, the first thing you should do is say hello to everyone that is already there. Many anglophones underestimate the importance of saying bonsoir, and as such, risk being perceived as rude by giving a general ‘hello’ to the whole room.

There are some other faux-pas to keep in mind while eating in a French home, like keeping your hands on the table rather than in your lap. You can learn more from The Local’s guide on table etiquette:

READ MORE: Cheese knives, hands and wine glasses – French table manners explained

Step 1: Aperitifs

This initial step typically involves a light alcoholic beverage before food is served. Apéro has its own culture and  if you’re invited to apéro don’t expect food beyond a few little snacks. Apéro generally takes place between 6pm and 9pm, though certainly before dinner.

READ MORE: Apéro: All you need to know about the French evening ritual

But before your big meal with your French friends or family, you will likely be offered a glass of something – whether that be champagne, Kir (or Kir Breton, if you find yourself in Brittany), Pastis (for those in the south) or a light cocktail. This is the time of night where people are chatting with a drink in their hand, and that drink will likely be influenced by the region you are visiting, so if you are in the south west you might enjoy an Aperitif of sweet wine or a Pinneau if you’re in Charente.

In terms of snacks, the relatively universal trend is light and salty – so you might expect to see olives and nuts, and perhaps even some raw vegetables with a dip. 

For those looking to avoid alcohol, soda or sparkling water, like Perrier is often the go-to alternative.

Step 2: The Entrée

The entrée – not to be confused with the main course, as it often is in the United States – is the first course – the starter or apetizer. In French, the verb entrer means “to enter” and this is the symbolic start of the meal.

As with most parts of your French dinner party, the food and drink offered will depend on regional tastes, as well as what is in season. For example, during the winter, you might have an onion soup. 

The first course is often cold or room-temperature foods – like Œuf mayonnaise. Some other common appetizers are smoked salmon canapé and escargot, the latter most common in Burgundy.

If you are along the Mediterranean, you might be offered tapenade – a purée of chopped olives, capers, and anchovies, and if you are on France’s western coast you might eat oysters.

If you are given a specific utensil to eat with – for instance a special fork for snails or a long pick for bulots (whelks) – then that should be used. If you’re having oysters they are traditionally slurped, all in one go, straight from the shell.

At this point in the meal, there will likely be  bread on the table to accompany the food but remember to save some room, because there are lots more courses to come. 

Step 3: The Main Course

Now it is time for the plat principal. Hopefully you are still hungry.

Tradition dictates that you should let your host serve you with wine, and old-fashioned French households would say that this rule applies specifically to women, who should wait for a man to come pour their wine. That being said, times have changed and most younger French people cheerfully ignore this. 

The wine poured will be paired with the meal, and the French abide by the general rules that red wine goes with red meat and tomato-based dishes, while white wine goes with fish, seafood, and dessert.

One for Americans – in France it’s considered polite to keep your fork in your left hand, and your knife in your right, and try to avoid the temptation of switching as you cut through the meat.

While it is considered polite to finish what is on your plate, if you find yourself getting full you can always say “C’était délicieux, mais ça suffit” (It was delicious, but that’s enough). While it may be tempting to tell your host “Je suis plein” (I am full) – be careful of false friends, you might be accidentally telling your host that you are pregnant. 

READ MORE: From rude to mince: 21 French ‘false friends’ that look English

Step 4: Dairy

This step in the French dinner timeline is not for the lactose-intolerant. After finishing the main dish, your French host will likely take out a cheese platter.

As there are hundreds of different types of French cheeses, it would take a long time to list all of the possible options you might encounter. The main thing to remember is not to use your hands (or your fork) when eating cheese. That might sound a bit tricky, so you can consult The Local’s cheese etiquette guide to prepare for this part of the meal.

READ MORE: Best Briehaviour: Your guide to French cheese etiquette

In some households – especially with children – your host might offer you a yogurt instead of cheese. This will likely be a small pot (cup) of a plain yogurt that you can add fresh fruit or compote (cooked fruit) to.

Step 5: Dessert

Dessert in France comes after cheese (not before as in the UK) and is generally quite small. Do not go into the meal expecting to leave lots of space in your stomach for a huge, sugary banana split ice cream or a sticky toffee pudding and custard. Instead, dessert might consist of some light pastries, chocolate, or small crème brûlée (when eating crème brûlée it’s considered elegant to tap the burnt sugar layer to break it first, rather than just shoving your spoon into the dish).

While eating dessert, you might be offered a sweet wine, like one from Sauternes.

Step 6: Coffee

At this point, it might be pretty late at night, but you will likely still be offered a coffee. Typically, this will be an espresso. If you want a little dash of milk in your short coffee, you can always ask for a noisette

Step 7: Digestif

This is the true end to the meal. Now that you have finished eating, and you’ve likely had a few glasses of wine, your host might put away the wine and take out a bottle of Cognac, Amagnac or similar.

The digestif is meant to settle your stomach, and they’re usually pretty strong so be careful if you have to be up early the next morning. Depending on where you are in France you will often be offered a local speciality like a Calvados (apple brandy) if you’re in Normandy.

Digestif: Do France’s after-dinner drinks actually help to settle your stomach?

Children

If you’re invited for a family meal, expect that the children will eat with you and will probably eat the same thing.

Depending on the age, the children might go away and play while the adults have the cheese and dessert courses and continue to chat but it’s usual for even young children to sit at the table and eat the first course and main course with their parents.

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