Baby - it's cold outside. But you can lull yourself into a contented state of hibernation this winter by digging into a meal of baby potatoes, sliced meat and gherkins covered with oozy, melted raclette.
The word raclette comes from the French verb racler, which means "to scrape," and is both the name of the cheese and of the dish made by heating it until the top layer melts and the browned, fruity, nutty-tasting cheese is scraped onto a plate of accompaniments. It's like the savoury version of toasting the perfect marshmallow over a campfire.
In Canada, we need to look no further than Quebec for an authentic version of this European classic. Swiss-born master cheese maker Fritz Kaiser has been making raclette since 1981. He currently makes more than 20 kinds of cheese, but raclette was one of the originals and his was the first commercially available raclette made in Canada. Mr. Kaiser sells various styles of the cheese at three different ages (between two and 10 months). There's also Raclette Griffon, which has a rind washed with Griffon beer, a pepper raclette, and this month Fromagerie Fritz Kaiser is introducing a garlic-flavoured raclette.
Raclette has its origins in Switzerland's Valais canton during the Middle Ages. Raclette du Valais was granted AOC (controlled designation of origin) status in 2003 suggesting that raclette from this region is the true version of the cheese. Under the AOC guidelines, Raclette du Valais is produced in small batches by artisanal cheese makers and is made from raw milk. It is ripened for four to six months. The designation has angered the Swiss cheese makers outside the region who also produce raclette, and has outraged the French, who have also been making raclette for generations.
Though Mr. Kaiser points out that his raclette, particularly the stronger versions, make a great table cheese, raclette is best known for its excellent melting properties. A good raclette will melt uniformly and hold together without becoming too liquid. It takes skill to find the ideal balance of moisture, fat and protein to achieve this goal. Too high a fat content can cause a cheese to "split" and become greasy when heated. Proper aging also helps fuse the curds - keeping the cheese creamy but allowing for browning of the exterior.
And if you're not stocked up with gherkins and baby potatoes, keep the raclette fire burning for fondues, vegetables au gratin or gourmet pizzas, or just pour the cheese over crisp nachos for an indulgent late-night nosh.
Sue Riedl studied at the Cordon Bleu in London.
On the block
Cheese Raclette Fritz Kaiser
Origin Noyan, Que.
Cheese maker Fritz Kaiser
Milk Pasteurized cow's, Holstein
Type Semi-soft, washed curd, pressed, natural washed rind
Shape 3-kilogram wheel
Distributor Fromages CDA
Quebec: Metro, Loblaws, Fromagerie Atwater
Toronto: Cheese Boutique, About Cheese
Vancouver: Mount Pleasant Cheese, Les Amis du Fromage
BEPPI'S WINE MATCHES
Do yourself a favour and pair raclette with gewurztraminer. Aromatic, floral and usually intensely fruity and spicy, this white wine excels in the Alsace region of France as well as in British Columbia and Niagara. Good producers include Hugel and Zind-Humbrecht from France, Château des Charmes and Jackson-Triggs from Niagara, and Pentâge and Red Rooster in B.C.