This week my brother and his wife are visiting us here in Paris and since their visit coincides with the beginning of the cool weather I was able to get out one of my favourite toys to prepare them a "real" French dinner. In fact, this toy is such a versatile one that it actually allows you to prepare TWO authentic French specialities at the same time: raclette and pierrade.
Now in fact, these two dishes are never served at the same time in a French home. They are often packaged together in the same apparatus simply because they rely on the same kind of heating element, one cooking food above the heat and the other below it, but they are two distinct "dinners". We can never decide which we like best and see no need to deprive ourselves of either delight and so...being pigs, we generally use both at the same time.
As any good English/French dictionary and many a food reference book will tell you, the word "raclette" derives from the French verb racler, to scrape. This is related to the traditional way of eating raclette cheese: a heating element of some kind is applied to the block of cheese and you scrape off the cheese as it melts and eat it over boiled potatoes, ham or toasted dark bread. Perhaps in the dark cave-man ages of France the heating element was simply a hot log pulled from a fire. In a Savoyard or Swiss restaurant, you will generally find that the large round cheese is cut in half and placed in a special holder with a heating bar that can be lowered to a few inches above the cheese cut. (As a picture is worth a thousand words, I would suggest you follow the link to this photo to see what I mean.) If you are hoping to make the cheese at home, you will most likely invest in a machine like mine. It has six trays that fit underneath the heating element; you fill them with slices of cheese, slide them under the heater and pull them out when the cheese is liquid and bubbly. The scraping reference in the name is still honoured in that each tray comes with its own little wooden paddle for scraping the cheese out of the tray and onto your slice of ham or boiled potato or piece of bread. It's a delight. Raclette cheese is much more flavourful than most other hard French cheeses and it melts into a satisfying gooey mess. I have made it many times for first-timers and it is always a hit. The comparison with fondue savoyarde is of course inevitable, but the main difference for the cook is in the preparation; every cook has his or her favourite recipe for fondue, but the only way to prepare a truly wonderful raclette is to find a very good cheesemonger. If you aren't lucky enough to live in France, your best bet when visiting is to check the menu on any fondue restaurant you find: they often serve both raclette and fondue.
If you are planning on eating out or in, it is well to remember that raclette cheese (like all good French cheeses) has a season: you cannot find it in the hot summer months. You wouldn't want to heat up the table with the cheese-melting apparatus in the middle of a heatwave, but even if you did nature doesn't supply you with the ingredients at that time of the year.
Swiss or Savoyard? Actually, like cheese fondue both the Swiss and the French claim to have invented raclette. The French region of Savoie being a next-door neighbor to Switzerland, all you can really say is that it comes from that general region!
On a personal note, to accompany our raclette I boiled a kilo of potatoes, cut some bread and served ham from the Savoie. Because my Critic doesn't like his savoie ham raw, this brings me nicely to the second part of the dinner...
Pierrade refers to the stone which rests above the heating element on my machine. Pierre means stone, so a pierrade is a stone-like thing. This is definitely NOT a French monopoly in the food world: cooking your food on a hot stone slab. Still, it's a lot of fun and as you are heating up the machine for cheese-melting it would be a waste not to slap some meat on the top of the element, right? Cooking the meat is the responsibility of the guests: just lay the meat on the hot slab and remember to turn it over and remove it when done. Generally, one person is designated to keep an eye on each of the meats, making sure that more is put on the element as space becomes available.
In using the pierrade, a cook has a bit more scope for creativity. First, you can prepare a variety of meats and marinate them in sauces if you like. Secondly, you can come up with tasty sauces to accompany your meats.
This time I kept to a fairly simple meat selection: the Savoie ham, slices of beef and pieces of chicken with a touch of olive oil to keep them from sticking to the stone. The store had a good selection of the new fall mushrooms, so I bought trompettes de la mort, oyster mushrooms, some that looked a bit like shiitake (but weren't) and a new one to me: pieds bleus. I sauteed them in a bit of butter, garlic and thyme and added a spoonful of creme fraiche just before serving. (Not only was this delicious with the beef, but I ate the remainder tonight with some leftover raclette on toast and it went extremely well with the cheese too!) For the chicken, I sauteed a chopped shallot in butter, and added a little tarragon, mustard and creme fraiche. Other favourites in the sauce department are: peppercorn sauce, bearnaise, tomato and hot pepper...basically anything you can think of to go with meat will please your guests! As for the meat, I also often use slices of duck or pork. The duck can get a bit messy as it gives up more fat than the other meats, but it is truly delicious.
Serve all of the above, cheese and meats, with a nice thick red wine to help fight all the cholesterol you are taking on. It's well worth it!