Social Simplicity: Switzerland’s Cheese Dishes
Jessica L. Reid
Swiss cheese-based dishes are sure to entice, whether while wandering around a world famous Swiss Christmas market, passing by an aromatic Swiss restaurant, or when invited into a Swiss home. At first it may seem odd, meals based solely around cheese, but it doesn’t take long for the unique smells and the even more intriguing tastes of Swiss cheeses to make a fan out of most.
A typical fondue meal.
Jessica L. Reid
Click image to enlarge.
Today, two cheese-based Swiss dishes, Raclette and fondue, have become very popular worldwide. Fondue restaurants can now be found all over the world, and raclette makers are becoming sought after gifts for new homeowners in many countries.
The adoration for these simple dishes is due not only to their unique tastes, but also because of the way in which they are eaten. Both dishes are socially interactive, eaten piece by piece with others gathered around a table over a long period of time. But although both Raclette and fondue share similar ingredients and are eaten in a similar fashion, each dish is historically distinct and has its own cultural significance.
The national dish
Fondue, derived from the French fonder, meaning “to melt,” was first documented in a late 17th century Swiss book called Käss mit Wein zu kochen, meaning “cooking cheese with wine.” Although thinking of cheese fondue today often invokes visions of alpine resorts and the ski holiday crowd, originally the dish was a peasant food believed to have been created as a way to use up old hardened cheeses and stale bread. For a time, recipes for cheese fondue included scrambling in eggs.
Modern recipes simply call for a mixture of Emmentaler, Gruyere, and sometimes other regional cheeses, along with wine and cherry brandy called Kirsch, and often flour or starch for texture, melted over a flame in a heavy communal pot called a caquelon.
In the 1930’s, the Swiss Cheese Union -- created to promote the consumption of Switzerland’s most abundant product -- declared cheese fondue the national dish of Switzerland. During and after World War II, cheese fondue was promoted as a symbol of the country’s unity. Soldiers stationed on cold mountainsides were sent fondue sets to use over open fire. Just as it is still eaten today, the soldiers would use the typical long forks to dip and swirl in a figure eight motion, their cubes of bread into the warm, pungent cheese mixture.
By the late 1950’s, cheese fondue and other forms of fondue (bouillon and meat, chocolate) began to gain popularity overseas. Sharing fondue with friends became all the rage for trendy North American dinner parties. Though the dish fell from popularity by the late 70’s, it appears that the fun communal meal is making a comeback in the 2010’s.
In Switzerland, fondue has always remained an iconic and sought after meal for both locals and tourists. In different regions, additional ingredients are often added such as mushrooms in Geneva, garlic in Vaud, or a thick flour roux in Glarus. In addition to bread, a variety of other foods are now commonly used for dipping, such as potatoes, pears, and vegetables. While the Swiss normally only eat cheese fondue during the winter season, tourists, much to the amusement of the locals, can often be seen enjoying the warm dish in the summer months as well.
An important rule for eating fondue is to be sure not to touch your mouth to the long fork used to dip. While some people prefer to use additional utensils, simply using your teeth to remove the food is often considered okay. Also, a game is often played when sharing fondue that instructs anyone who loses a piece of food in the pot to, for example, buy a round of drinks or kiss the opposite sex on the cheek.
Portions of Raclette served at
a market stall. Jessica L. Reid
Click image to enlarge.
When the cheese is nearly complete, the Swiss enjoy letting it burn onto the bottom of the pot, creating a hardened layer. This layer has different names in different regions, including grossmutter or “grandmother” in some German-speaking areas, and religieuse or "nun" in French-speaking regions.
Cheese fondue is normally paired with a Swiss white wine called Fendant, light beer, or a peppermint tea said to make the meal less heavy. For dessert a portion of pineapple is sometimes served as it is also thought to aid in the digestion of the heavy meal.
Eat slowly and sociably
While some aspects of Swiss tradition have evolved over time, the Swiss are known for holding on to many characteristics of their historically cute culture. A-frame chalets, red-checkered table clothes, hand-cut hay, and large creamy cheese wheels all continue to hold the same symbolic status they did centuries ago. One piece of Swiss culture that has transformed over the years is the preparation of their popular dish, Raclette.
First to clarify, the word “Raclette” is used to describe both a specific type of cheese, as well as the dish it is used in. While the way in which the dish is prepared and eaten has evolved, Raclette cheese remains the same strong flavored, unpasteurized cow’s milk cheese that it was over 700 years ago. Raclette cheese has such a distinct smell and flavor that it can rarely be compared to others, and with the perfect balance of fat and moisture, it is a cheese made perfect for melting.
Raclette originated in the French-speaking Valais region, high in the Alps among famous peaks like the Matterhorn. Shepherds herding sheep and cows on high mountainside pastures, far from their homes, invented Raclette as a meal that could be eaten using simple hardy ingredients and open flame. Small potatoes were boiled over a fire and Raclette cheese was melted on or near the hot rocks. The word Raclette is derived from the French racler, meaning “to scrape,” and today the same type spatchel is still used to scrape the melted cheese. Pickled vegetables, normally onions and cucumbers, are added to complete the dish.
While these ingredients remain constant in the creation of Raclette, more conventional methods of preparation are now available. When ordering a single portion of Raclette in a Swiss Christmas market, from a mountain top ski-hut, or in a restaurant, the dish is prepared using a large piece of a Raclette cheese wheel exposed to a heater. The melted top layer of cheese is then scraped onto the warm potatoes or sometimes bread. A special Raclette seasoning can also be added made of paprika, pepper, cumin, and nutmeg.
Since the 1970’s, with the invention of a special tabletop grill, Raclette has also become a meal of choice for Swiss dinner parties, normally in the winter months, and especially when hosting foreigners. The unique grill is plugged in or heated with lit fuel, and is accompanied by small pans with handles called coupelles.
Pre-cut Raclette cheese, which can be purchased from any local market, fits perfectly into the pans, which are placed under a heater for melting. On top of the grill is a place for cooking meats. This is a newer addition to the preparation of Raclette and makes for a more balanced meal. A traditional small burlap sack with a cloth top, used to keep the small roasted potatoes warm, is then passed around the table. Raclette is meant to be eaten slowly in a social fashion, and is also often paired with white wine or herbal teas.
What makes these seemingly simple Swiss cheese-based dishes so special, sought after, and popular worldwide, is the fun, interactive, social way in which they are eaten. Additionally, the rich cultural traditions behind both dishes, and of course the unique cheeses that they are created with, add layers of whimsy and decadence to the Swiss-cheese dining experiences.
Jessica L. Reid is a graduate student in communications
currently engaged in the field of cultural studies. She works
as a freelance writer and editor, specializing in web copy,
blog, and academic writing, and is a regular contributor on the
website, www.german-way.com. An avid diner, cook, and traveler,
she currently divides her time between Montreal, Canada and the
Zurich region in Switzerland.