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FOOD & DRINK

Rules of Raclette: How to make France’s ‘most popular’ dish

Raclette is a French winter classic. It consists of melted cheese smeared over potatoes and cold cuts of meat. A new poll ranks it as the country's most popular dish.

Meat, potatoes, pickles and cheese all make a raclette
Don't get into hot water over your veg. Photo: StudioM/Depositphotos

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.

A new poll found that raclette is France’s most popular dish – it is even served in the presidential palace. The cheesy classic is particularly popular among young people. So what do you need to know about this Alpine speciality? 

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.

However it seems that raclette season – like Christmas – is starting earlier every year.

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 potatoes and vegetables (albeit 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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Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

One thing everyone can agree on is that France has a lot of cheese - but exactly how many French fromages exist?

Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

Question: I often see a quote from Charles de Gaulle talking about ‘246 different types of cheese’, but other articles say there are 600 or even 1,000 different types of cheese and some people say there are just eight types – how many different cheeses are there in France?

A great question on a subject dear to French hearts – cheese.

But it’s one that doesn’t have a simple answer.

Charles de Gaulle did indeed famously say “How can anyone govern a country with 246 different types of cheese”, but even in 1962 when he uttered the exasperated phrase, it was probably an under-estimate.

READ ALSO 7 tips for buying cheese in France

The issue is how you define ‘different’ types of cheese, and unsurprisingly France has a complicated system for designating cheeses.

Let’s start with the eight – there are indeed eight cheese ‘families’ and all of France’s many cheeses can be categorised as one of;

  • Fresh cheese, such as cottage cheese or the soft white fromage blanc
  • Soft ripened cheese, such as Camembert or Brie
  • Soft ripened cheese with a washed rind, such as l’Epoisses or Pont l’Eveque
  • Unpasturised hard cheese such as Reblochon or saint Nectaire
  • Pasturised hard cheese such as Emmental or Comté
  • Blue cheese such as Roquefort 
  • Goat’s cheese
  • Melted or mixed cheese such as Cancaillot

But there are lots of different types of, for example, goat’s cheese.

And here’s where it gets complicated, for two reasons.

The first is that new varieties of cheese are constantly being invented by enterprising cheesemakers (including some which come about by accident, such as le confiné which was created in 2020).

The second is about labelling, geography and protected status.

France operates a system known as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC or its European equivalent AOP) to designate food products that can only be made in a certain area.

As cheese is an artisan product, quite a lot of different cheese are covered by this – for example a blue sheep’s milk cheese is only Roquefort if it’s been aged in the caves in the village of Roquefort.

There are 63 listed AOC cheeses in France, but many more varieties that don’t have this protected status.

These include generic cheese types such as BabyBel and other cheeses that are foreign in origin but made in France (such as Emmental).

But sometimes there are both AOC and non-AOC versions of a single cheese – a good example of this is Camembert.

AOC Camembert must be made in Normandy by farmers who have to abide by strict rules covering location, milk type and even what their cows eat.

Factory-produced Camembert, however, doesn’t stick to these rules and therefore doesn’t have the AOC label. Is it therefore the same cheese? They’re both called Camembert but the artisan producers of Normandy will tell you – at some length if you let them – that their product is a totally different thing to the mass-produced offering.

There are also examples of local cheeses that are made to essentially the same recipe but have different names depending on where they are produced – sometimes even being on opposite sides of the same Alpine valley is enough to make it two nominally different cheeses.

All of which is to say that guessing is difficult!

Most estimates range from between 600 to 1,600, with cheese experts generally saying there are about 1,000 different varieties. 

So bonne dégustation!

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