Every summer, loved ones and I convene in New Hampshire to reunite and swim in a lake and rejuvenate in various ways and, most importantly, to eat some amazing cheese. OK, the cheese is not quite as important as the loved ones and the reuniting, but it is pretty damn special.
I was blessed to grow up, from the age of four on, in a wonderfully tight-knit neighborhood. There were single people and families, kids with whom I learned to ride bikes on my dead end street. There was the beloved bachelor professor who lived downstairs from me. There were roommates and people who lived down the block, flitting in and out of the weekly dinners that were a constant for the rest of us, and then there was Colleen. Colleen was just about the most beautiful and sophisticated person I could imagine. She lived next door to us with a family of friends, and they had all met in Switzerland. Colleen had lived all over Europe. We called her driveway “piazza,” strung with twinkle lights and decorated with a small gondola. She traveled the big world and broadened my littler one with exotic chocolates and mementos and enchanting stories. Once she phoned me from an AIRPLANE for goodness sake. My mind was blown.
It must also be said that Colleen is from the Midwest, all American charm and stories of swim meets and big families and having too long legs as a girl. She grew up spending summer days on a lake with brothers and sisters and cousins, water-skiing and swimming and all kinds of neat things. When I was about six, she bought a house on a lake in New Hampshire, in large part so that she could share that experience with her loved ones. It is a fantastic house, and she fills it with fantastic people throughout the summer.
Because a few cornerstone members of our neighborhood crew first met in Switzerland, we took to spending Swiss national day, August 1, at the lake house and, though the date has varied over the years, the tradition of celebrating with raclette has not.
Raclette is an amazing thing. It is a semi-firm cheese, and also the dish named for the cheese, traditionally served melted with fresh ground pepper and boiled potatoes and cornichons and little pearl onions and cold cuts (though I traditionally forgo those last two things). It is a washed rind cheese, and I thought it was offensively stinky as a kid, but now I find it somewhat mild. My palate is either more sophisticated or rather more dull than it was twenty years ago. Go figure. In any event, the raclette is creamy and smooth and just the tiniest bit stinky-cheesy and one of the best things that you could ever hope to eat.
Nowadays, it is possible to purchase various types of electric raclette grills to make melty cheese in your own home. Many of these little grills have individual pans to melt down individual slices of raclette. While I would never say no to my own little portion of melted cheese, and while I’m sure raclette tastes phenomenal under any circumstances, it’s worth pointing out that the name raclette comes from the word “racler,” to scrape, and I am both pleased and unduly proud to consume raclette prepared the old-fashioned way every summer with some of my very favorite people.
Here is how it’s done.
Step 1: Procure half a wheel of cheese. Not a sliver, not a wedge. An entire half wheel of cheesy awesomeness is required. Place the cheese with the cut side facing a fire. Our traditional racleur was not able to make it this year, but he rigged up this system years ago — a contained fire with a grill grate against which coals can be stacked to maximize heat exposure while keeping the cheese safe from flames and ash — thus enabling us to forge ahead with our cheese-loving ways with relative ease.
Step 2: Scrape-a-scrape! The racleur flips the cheese for even melting and watches, with a keen eye, to see if it is ready. Once the outermost layer of cheese has melted, the racleur removes it from the fire and uses a special flat knife to scrape the melty goodness onto a waiting plate. Inevitably, there will be some excess along the sides. This is scraped upwards and inwards, onto the flat surface of the cheese, for additional melting and eventual serving. The crispy, rindy bits are known as the religieuse after the nuns to whom this part was relegated until other people caught on that it was awesome. At least that’s what I was told when I was a kid. Maybe it’s called the religieuse because eating it makes you feel close to God? That seems entirely plausible. Would someone less ignorant and better with French please step in here and clarify?
Step 3: Repeat. Repeat until everyone is fed and happy, and until someone else dons the apron and gives the racleur a chance to eat.
Step 4 (Optional, but recommended): Let me have a go! Cheese lover that I am, I was thrilled, after 22 years of this wonderful tradition, to get behind the cheese for the first time.
Step 5: Wrap leftover cheese in foil, refrigerate, and make rösti in the morning. My mom handles this part, frying leftover potatoes with grated raclette until crispy and brown, while I make a big pan of eggs that inevitably takes way longer than it should, and eventually we all sit down to one of the best breakfasts of the year in a sunny spot on a lovely lake, and I, for one, feel blessed and happy with hot food and cold juice and lazy days with friends who feel like family.