North American ski resorts boast great snow, fantastic terrain, and lots of their own charms, but they can’t really hold a candle to one aspect of the European ski vacation – cheese. Close your eyes and draw a mental picture of the Alps, and chances are good it will include fondue pots and cow bells, iconic parts of the visitor experience. While the ski heart of the Alps spans several countries, including France, Switzerland and Italy, one thing they all agree on is the magnificence of cheese dishes and how well they go with skiing and wine these are the folks who invented the term après ski, after all. Herewith, our definitive guide to the melted cheese phenomenon.
Après ski comfort food for sharing and camaraderie, the basic concept is straightforward: a pot of rich melted cheese dip, into which you immerse cubes of bread on long forks until thoroughly coated. But after that it gets a lot more confusing. Bread is the staple, but dipping
tools often include other things that taste great covered in melted cheese, including gherkins, potatoes, pearl onions, and sliced sausage or air dried beef. As for the cheese itself, there are as many recipes as there are cooks, and each household is just as passionate.
The most common is gruyere, and the most typical variation is a half and half mix with emmental, but some think a more esoteric local Swiss specialty cheese, vacherin, is more traditional than emmental, while others prefer appenzeller. In the French parts of the Alps they often use their beloved comte instead of gruyere, alone or in a blend. Whatever cheese is used, it is typically melted with a dash white wine, but some go further and add garlic, cream, or cornstarch to help maintain consistency, and kirsch
(a cherry liqueur) is a very common
addition too. If you are not cooking it yourself, this questions hardly matter, since most restaurants will simply offer fondue their way, and it will be delicious. The one custom that is important to remember is that losing your bread cube in the pot is an offense punishable by picking up the check.
Raclette. Think reverse fondue – instead of dipping food in melted cheese, you spread melted cheese on top of food – which is fine by us. Raclette is a particular kind of cheese, so the recipe is simple, but the preparation varies. Traditionally, a large wheel of raclette cheese was sliced in half, and then places adjacent to a roaring fire. Diners would then load their plates with an array of edibles from a buffet-style spread, including boiled potatoes, gherkins, pearl onions, mushrooms, and assorted
cured meats. As the edge of the cheese melted, guests would take turns scraping it off with a special wooden paddle the width of the wheel, depositing the paddleful of melted cheese on top of the food on their plate. Today most restaurants have electric raclette machines for each table, with a special bulb as the heat source.
You can remove the cheese from the heat when you need a break, then start again. It is a fun, communal and delicious experience. Some places have just one raclette machine in the kitchen, and come out with individual plates loaded with a pool of melted cheese and accessories.
Until tomorrow: Time is the least thing we have of.