Why France’s raclette cheese season is starting earlier

It seems to come around earlier every year. We're not talking about Christmas, but about raclette season. So is it really too early to start enjoying this French culinary tradition?

A woman sets up her display stand in a cheese store in Montpellier. Raclette cheese is being sold earlier every year.
Raclette cheese is being sold earlier every year. Photo: Pascal GUYOT / AFP.

The beginning of November? The official start of winter? Whoever you speak to in France will have their own firmly-held beliefs about when it’s acceptable to tuck into your first raclette of the season.

The dish, which is technically Swiss but very popular in France, involves pouring melted cheese over boiled potatoes, cold meats and cornichons, making it the perfect, hearty meal to warm you up during the winter. And the table-top machines which allow guests to melt the cheese themselves mean it’s a great way of enjoying the company of friends and family when you don’t feel like going out in the cold.

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But people in France are bringing the machine down from the attic earlier and earlier, and raclette season this year has already begun, according to an article in French daily Le Parisien.

“Since last weekend, we’ve had to double our staff, from two to four people in the kitchen,” the Savoyard restaurant in Paris, Le Brasier, told the newspaper.

The report added that Richesmonts, the second largest producer of raclette cheese in France, now makes 13 percent of its annual sales between April and August, compared to 9 percent four years ago.

“We now have to be ready in the aisles from September, whereas it was October a few years ago,” Amel Ben Meriem, marketing director at Richesmonts told Le Parisien.

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According to a YouGov poll conducted in January 2020, 87 percent of French people eat a raclette at least occasionally in the winter, which for 25 percent of people means at least once a month. 41 percent of people said they would never eat a raclette outside of winter, while only 6 percent have it every month during the rest of the year.

Ombeline Périer, who lives in Lille, was invited to a family gathering on September 25th where she had her first raclette of the season. “I was a bit surprised,” she told The Local, adding, “It wasn’t too early. It was delicious.”

While the tradition may be creeping further into the autumn, it remains closely associated with the weather.

“It’s still something you eat when it’s cold and I’d feel weird eating it in July or August,” Périer said. “Part of having a raclette is that the machine heats the room a bit so you’re nice and cosy, so when you’re already warm it makes the experience a bit worse.”

Raclette machine sales exploded in November 2020 during the second Covid-19 lockdown, rising by around 300 percent. According to consumer specialists NielsenIQ, 53 percent of French households purchase raclette cheese for an average of three “raclette parties” every year. That’s not counting those who indulge in a raclette in a restaurant, particularly in mountain resorts, where it’s a popular après ski dish.

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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!