You don't have to be French to enjoy this beer dinner party concept.
I never claimed to be French.
I find that I'm often defending this point to my American friends, though I can understand their confusion; I've been living in France for five years, and while I've done my best to acclimate, going further than many French natives even in my Francophile interests – a master’s degree in French literature and a knowledge of the French subjunctive that borders on obsessive, off the top of my head – there are elements of my American-ness that remain and are even exacerbated the longer I stay here.
I am, for example, much more willing to try new things for the heck of it, to see if there are ways to do something better than age-old tradition... something that isn't always appreciated, especially when it comes to French cuisine. I'm happy to announce, then, that my decision to pair beer with the French classic raclette, isn't of my own invention at all, but rather a time-honored classic... and for good reason.
When I first moved to France, my French was limited, as was my knowledge of anything more French than Ludwig Bemelmans' Madeline and Gene Kelly in An American in Paris. I welcomed every element of culture offered to me by my French host family with the same over-generalizing acceptance, which led me to believe that all French families brew one extremely strong pot of coffee every morning that they water down and heat in the microwave over the course of the day (which they do not) and that all French families have a raclette machine (which they do).
This machine, which has recently become popular in the States, was a wonder to 14-year-old me. I was told to place a slice of cheese in the small tray I was handed, slide it under the contraption, and wait. I watched the 7-year-old baby of the family, who was slightly more adept than I was at most things, for clues as to what to do with the plate of potatoes and ham. He sliced his potato into coins and cut the ham into small pieces, sprinkling them over the top. He then sliced a small cornichon very thinly and arranged these pieces over the ham. By the time he had finished, his cheese had melted, and he used a plastic spatula to scrape (racler in French, which gives the dish its name), allowing the cheese to fall luxuriously onto the pile of potato-ham-cornichon. I followed suit and swooned: it was love at first bite.
Raclettes after that first were few but memorable. While the first was accompanied by water – we were children, after all – the next few were eaten alongside red wine, which has the added bonus of creating a hole in your stomach to allow for more cheese.
It was during one such dinner that cheese finally defeated this cheese-lover; this raclette, eaten in Cannes as spring turned to summer – not an ideal time for eating mass quantities of melted cheese – was of the traditional Alpine variety: a wheel of raclette cheese, suspended on a melting apparatus, was placed in the middle of our table set for five. Potatoes were unlimited and were taken from a basket that hung from the ceiling; the cheese seemed never-ending. I approached it as a challenge. I should have known that cheese always wins. My friends moved on to a bar for drinks, while I waddled home, wishing that I had a wheelbarrow and a well-meaning French-man to push me home in it.
Cheese may have defeated me that day, but I by no means forgot my love of the perfect combination of melted cheese, potato, ham and pickles. But it wasn't until my almost-mother-in-law gifted me and my French boyfriend with our very own raclette machine this Christmas that I got the chance to make raclette at home. By this point, I had had enough experience with raclette to know what the players at the table were meant to be: tiny cornichons, lots of raclette cheese slices, a variety of ham, salami, prosciutto and viande de grison — which I can best describe as the lovechild of ham and beef – … and salad. For decoration, mostly.
I've long known that white wine served with hot cheese is a no-no. Some claim that the cold wine congeals the cheese in your stomach (unappealing to say the least), and others claim that it's just too much acid. I've always preferred red wine, although the temptation as I set out to find the ingredients for our raclette machine's inaugural run gave me pause. Why not echo the nutty flavors of the cheese and cut the richness with something slightly bitter? Why did I have to serve raclette with wine... why couldn't I serve it with beer?
Before the skies had time to open with choruses of singing angels, Google shot down any delusions of grandeur I had: serving raclette with beer is a time-honored tradition, pairing the Alpine dish with Belgian pale ales and lagers. Both cheese and beer are products traditionally made by farm wives. They would pair their cheese with their beer, each bringing out the strong points of the other. What resulted was a combination of raclette cheese — a cheese with a high fat content and a smooth, buttery flavor – and regional beers, which brought out the flavors of the cheese that had been made on the same farmstead. A match made in heaven... or at least in the Alps.
Sure enough, the farm wives had it right. I find that they generally do. It took more than words, though, to convince my French friends. I invited a few of them over to break in the new machine for the first raclette of the season, knowing well in advance I would not be serving the traditional red wine. They seemed skeptical when I brought out my 75 centiliter (750 ml) bottles of beer, but I had a plan.
Variety was the name of the game, with a variety of raclette cheese slices — traditional, black pepper, mustard — as well as three different beers, which my friends at Bières Cultes, a favorite beer store in Chatelet, were more than happy to help with.
The first beer we tried, an IPA from Gouden Carolus, had spicy notes that went particularly well with the peppercorn raclette cheese. The light carbonation and slight bitterness of Saison Dupont worked wonders on cutting the richness of the dish without overpowering the flavors. And what's more, the carbonation had the opposite effect of wine. I was fuller faster and thus avoided the unspeakable catastrophe of eating too much cheese (though I made a concerted effort).
Perhaps the best combination of tradition and innovation was to pair the raclette with a fruity, red Flanders ale. I selected Caracole, which had nicely sweet notes, bringing out some of the underlying flavors in the rich cheese. This was the clear winner amongst my friends… even the French ones. As for me, well, I never claimed to be French.
Want to host your own raclette party? Check out our raclette party guide below.
RACLETTE PARTY GUIDE
What You Need
The Raclette Grill - Get equipped for your raclette party with this simple-to-use Swissmar® Red Raclette Party Grill. It serves up to eight people and allows you to simultaneously cook food on the top grill, and melt cheese on the trays below. (Available at amazon.com | $110.46)
The Raclette Cheese – In France, raclette cheese is sold in slices, ready to use in a raclette grill. Unfortunately, this has yet to hit the States in a big way, so you’ll need to buy a wheel or a half-wheel of cheese and slice it yourself. You’ll want between four and five ounces of cheese per person. Order a 1-pound wheel raclette cheese.
The Charcuterie – Use a combination of your favorites. Traditionally, a combination of cooked and cured ham, salami and viande de grison is used, but you can also add Canadian bacon, small chunks of slab bacon or even thinly sliced sausage.
The Potatoes – Use smallish, evenly sized potatoes boiled in their jackets. Varieties like yukon golds, charlottes and bintjes are ideal, as they hold their shape well and have tender skin and creamy, yellow flesh when cooked. Consider three to four potatoes per person.
All The Trimmings – Round out your traditional raclette meal with cornichons (mini gherkin pickles) maybe alongside silverskin onions (pickled cocktail onions), and try serving a simple seasonal green salad as a starter or accompanying side. You can also include cherry tomatoes, sliced peppers, onion or mushrooms, and if you prefer, some crusty bread or sliced baguettes.
The Beers – We loved the fruitiness of the red Flanders ale, and the Belgian IPA and Saison were delicious accompaniments as well, but an American IPA or porter would each be a great match too.
What To Do
One Day Ahead
The day of
One hour before
Just before eating
Heat the raclette grill.