When I was young, I was told repeatedly not to play with my food. But that didn’t stop me from constructing elaborate sculptures out of fish fingers, mashed potato and peas, that at the time I thought were worthy of inclusion in whatever was the culinary equivalent of the Louvre.
Whilst having dinner next to a Parisian mother and her child a few months back, it dawned on me that such dinner time creativity is much less tolerated on this side of the Channel, where meal times are a much more civilised affair. For the love of God, this six-year-old fledgling was eating steak tartare and slender fries (minus ketchup I might add) and making a rather organised job of it (i.e. the half-eaten remnants were all still on his plate and not mashed together in a big lump).
Imagine then my surprise when I encountered the DIY, dump-it-on, seemingly-invented-by-a-child melted cheese free-for-all that is raclette; an established French favourite when the weather gets chillier and thoughts turn to snow and skiing. Originally from Switzerland (and named after the cheese with which it’s made), it’s a dish about as far from sophisticated as you could get; a get-your-hands dirty culinary build-’em-up where the main aim is to get as much melted cheese over the assembled accompaniments on your plate as possible. If that’s not playing with your food, I don’t know what is.
Most of us anglophones are far more familiar with fondue, though those slender little fork things don’t insure against drips on the tablecloth or lost bread chunks sacrificed to the bottom of the pan. Raclette is a turbo version of the dish if you like, omitting the wine (which is for drinking, obviously) and the various seasonings, and concentrating on pure, unadulterated melted cheese.
To prove its heavyweight status, you’ll need a piece of special kit to make it happen, though in the olden days all you needed was a massive wadge of cheese, an open fire and something to scrape the melted bits off with (I’d just use my tongue, but etiquette dictates some kind of tool). These days you have an electric machine, akin to a kind of grill, under which you slide individual trays with a thick slice of cheese nestled inside, and wait for it to melt.
Whilst you’re trying to keep your mouth from watering all over the table as you watch the magic slowly happen, the idea is to stack your plate full of boiled potatoes (handily kept warm in the specially-designed place on top), assorted cured meats, gherkins and pickled onions, and pour over the melted cheese-lava as soon as it’s bubbling to your liking, submerging every morsel in its wake. Pop another slice of cheese in to get cooking whilst you’re tucking into the first lot, and repeat until skiing the following morning looks like a near impossibility due to sudden, dramatic weight gain.
The French may still be famed for their foie gras, Champagne and oysters, a holy trio of deliciousness that spells class like nothing else, but at this time of year, I’m living amongst a people who love nothing more than getting down and dirty with as much melted cheese as they can swallow. Now that’s my kind of sophistication.