Cheese Spotlight: Raclette
As with many traditional kinds of cheese, Raclette has very humble beginnings. Farmers carried this cheese with them on their mountainous journeys to set along the fire to melt while tending the herds. The requisite "scrape" topped many accompaniments like potatoes, onions, pickles, and cured meats. A filling yet delicious and easy dinner for hard-working farmers.
Recently, Raclette has gained in popularity, and the hashtag #raclettecheese has over 19,000 entries on Instagram. It's a "food porn" lovers dream with it's oozy, meltiness and sploosh landings. It bubbles heavenly under a heat lamp, providing a healthy amount of anticipation. The smell wafting through the air will get mouths watering from afar. So, what makes Raclette so unique?
Let's start with a little cheese science. I went over to the excellent website Cheese Science Toolkit and picked up a few tidbits on melting to help better understand what's happening and why Raclette is so good for getting gooey.
Cheese is made up of three main elements; Protein, fat, and water. Casein proteins make up the structure of the cheese and calcium holds the casein micelles together in a sponge-like texture with fat and water suspended in the holes. Higher moisture cheeses melt better, so having more water and fat will produce a meltier cheese. Acid affects meltability also. The direct addition of acid will cause the casein micelles to bind together, leaving no room for water and fat. On the other end, lower acid cheeses have more calcium, which keeps the casein strands tightly "glued" together making them unable to stretch and melt. So, higher moisture, medium acid cheeses will be what you are looking for when choosing a melting cheese. I'll admit to only having basic knowledge in Chemistry, so I implore you to reach deeper if this tickles your knowledge fancy.
To get another insight, I reached out to Cristi Menard, Sales Manager at Springbrook Farms in Vermont. Springbrook specializes in Raclette style cheeses made from the Jersey herds of their neighboring partner dairies. They do much more than that, and I encourage you to check out their vital work!
Cristi brought up looking at Raclette with a more geographical consideration. As with many ways of preserving food, there is always a need that they were trying to fill. The farmers working high on the Alpine mountaintops needed sustenance while the larger format cheeses were aging. Farmers made Raclette when the cows were not grazing on Alpine pastures but were instead closer to the drying off phases of their lactation cycle. Their milk yield was lower, and so they weren't able to make the big format cheeses like Gruyere, Beaufort, etc. A smaller, more compact cheese that could be easily packed for dinners by the campfire was the result.
Washing a cheese creates flavor and aroma, but there may have been other reasons for employing that technique. Salt is difficult to come by high in the mountains, so washing the cheeses would provide the needed salt content for rind formation. This washing also creates the right conditions for bacterial colonization and the required changes in PH to make the cheese more durable and long-lasting. The flavor and aroma are just a bonus!
There you have it. History! Science! Humble beginnings! Delving a little deeper into Raclette has changed the way I think about it a bit. I've always loved it because, well, melted cheese, but now when I see those Instagram rivers of cheese flowing, I'll be thinking about how Raclette is just a farmer's deliciously quick and dirty road snack. We all deserve a road snack like that.
Where's your favorite place to get Raclette? Do you do make it at home? Tell me how you enjoy this cheese!