Just let it melt in your mouth

Raclette is the great winter cheese of Switzerland: perfect for fondue, of course, but also dreamy on pizza or bruschetta, in a spinach tart or cauliflower cheese. Annie Bell shows how

My daydream goes like this: after a long walk on a cold, clear afternoon in the Swiss canton of Valais, I settle in front of a wood fire which is mass of red embers, the flames having died down.

There is a racleur present who, taking a whole half-wheel of a large cheese, places it close to the embers, cut side uppermost, until the surface is molten and giving off a rich, smoky, farmyard aroma. Taking a broad- bladed knife, the racleur runs it across the molten surface of the cheese, scraping it in a thick ribbon on to a plate of boiled potatoes below, which I eat with some pickled gherkins and an onion salad.

Raclette is a purpose-built cheese. It goes hand-in-hand with the Swiss love of fondue and it is at once a cheese and a dish in itself: racler is to scrape, hence the ritual. It belongs to a closely-knit group of cheeses which includes gruyre, emmenthal and parmesan. These are thermophilic - made with a genus of bacteria that enjoys a warm temperature.

I hope anyone who has been skiing in Switzerland will have actually experienced my daydream. History has it that the shepherds and herdsmen in the valleys of Valais were the first to melt raclette on hot stones or beside an open fire. Raclette machines will mock up the procedure at home: a metal contraption holds a slice of cheese at an angle while an overhead filament melts it: machinery for the cook who has everything.

Skiers often get the benefit of raclette because it is eaten young. Mountain raclette made by hand is ready for eating from autumn onwards, whereas gruyre is not ready until the spring. "This cheese is made by the ultra-hard cheese makers so they can balance the books without starving to death," is how Bill Hogan, producer of the only raclette in Britain explains its existence, though it was also a source of winter food.

A cynic will tell you the best raclette never finds its way out of Switzerland, but there are many variants and you could just as well use one of Bill Hogan's young Desmond cheeses.

Raclette has claimed my allegiance as a cooking cheese. As pliable as putty, it dissolves in the mouth and exudes a fresh milkiness and wonderfully full-blown savour when it is melted, requiring just minimal heat before it changes state to a silky liquid mass. But it is imperative not to overcook it or "you get a glob", as Mr Hogan puts it.

Lay slices between layers of potatoes in a creamy gratin and it will fuse into the dish with all the subtlety of fontina. It also makes a superlative pizza: a layer of leeks sweated with thyme and garlic, sliced raclette and black olives added just at the end of baking.

It is good for lasagne, herb gnocchi or even simply melted in a pan and then scraped on top of a layer of cooked vegetables.

One recipe I read suggested 18oz of cheese per person. If you have just manoeuvred a mountain of skis, this quantity may be in order, but it is very rich and a few ounces is a more comfortable amount.

Now back to that daydream: I was drinking a particularly good Goldener Valais and the racleur asked if I would like a second helping.

Bruschetta with Raclette and an Onion Salad

Serves 4

Ingredients for onion salad: 1lb (450g) white onions

4 gherkins (11/2oz), thinly sliced

1dsp red wine vinegar

1 level tsp grainy mustard salt, pepper

generous pinch castor sugar

4tbs mild olive oil

For bruschetta: 4 x 1/2in slices wholegrain bread

1 garlic clove

12oz (330g) raclette (weight excluding rind), sliced

Preparation: Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Peel, halve and finely slice the onions into crescents. Add onions to pan, bring back to the boil and cook for 1 minute; drain and rinse under cold running water. Place in a bowl and mix in gherkins.

Whisk the vinegar with mustard, seasoning and sugar, add oil. Toss with onions.

Preheat grill and toast bread on both sides; rub one side with the garlic clove. Lay the cheese on the toast and then return to the grill until it is just melted. Serve with a pile of onion salad on top.

Spinach, Raclette and Porcini Tart with a Cornmeal Crust

Serves 6

Ingredients for pastry: 1 egg yolk (size 2)

1/2 tsp castor sugar

1/2tsp salt

21/2fl oz (75ml) water

6oz (170g) plain flour, sifted

3oz (85g) fine-grain polenta

21/2oz (70g) unsalted butter, diced

For filling: 1/2oz (15g) dried porcini

1lb (455g) young spinach leaves

1/2oz (15g) unsalted butter

1 garlic clove, minced; salt and pepper

1 egg (size 2)

2 egg yolks (size 2)

7fl oz (200ml) milk

7fl oz (200ml) double cream

nutmeg

1 heaped tablespoon freshly grated parmesan

7oz (200g) raclette (weight excluding rind), sliced

1 marmande tomato (about 6oz), peeled, seeded and diced.

Preparation: Blend egg yolk, sugar, salt and water together. Place the flour, polenta and butter in food processor and reduce to crumbs. Bring dough together with egg and water solution, remove from processor and knead for a minute or two on a lightly-floured surface. Wrap in cling- film and rest in fridge for 1 hour.

Cover the porcini with boiling water and leave for 15 minutes. Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil, wash the spinach and add to pan, bring back to the boil and cook for 30 seconds. Drain and refresh in a sink of cold water, squeeze out with your hands and reserve.

Heat butter in a frying pan, add garlic and, moments later, add spinach, season and cook for 1-2 minutes. Remove porcini and coarsely chop, reserve liquor for some other use.

Heat the oven to 180C/350F/ gas 4. Lightly flour a work surface, knead the pastry until it is pliable, and roll it 1/8in thick to fit the base and sides of a 10in spring form cake tin, lay it in place and trim the top. Line with foil and baking beans and cook for 15 minutes, remove foil and beans and cook another 10 minutes until lightly coloured.

Blend the egg, egg yolk and cream in a large bowl and season with salt, pepper and nutmeg, stir in the parmesan and add spinach and porcini. Layer with the raclette in the pastry case, scatter over the diced tomato. Bake for 35 minutes until custard is set and golden on the surface. Trim pastry in line with the filling and serve 20 minutes out of the oven.

Cauliflower with a Herb Sauce and Raclette

Serves 4

Ingredients for sauce: 5fl oz (150ml) white wine

5fl oz (150ml) milk

6fl oz (180ml) double cream

6fl oz (180ml) double-strength vegetable stock

2oz (55g) unsalted butter

11/2oz (40g) plain flour

salt, pepper and nutmeg

1 heaped tsp grainy mustard

1 heaped tbs each of finely-chopped chives, chervil and flat-leaf parsley.

1lb 6oz (620g) cauliflower

florets

8oz (225g) raclette (weight excluding rind), sliced

To serve: diced croutons fried in butter or clarified butter

Preparation: For the sauce, reduce wine in a small saucepan to one-third of the volume, combine in a jug with milk, cream and stock. Melt butter in same pan, add flour and cook roux for 1-2 minutes. Gradually incorporate liquid off the heat, whisking to disperse any lumps. Return to the heat and simmer for 5 minutes, stirring. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg, stir in the mustard and herbs.

Heat oven to 190C/375F/ gas 5. Bring a large pan of salted water to boil, add cauliflower, bring to boil and cook for 5 minutes. Drain and arrange with the sauce and raclette in a shallow baking dish, cover with foil and cook for 30-35 minutes until hot and bubbling at the edges. Serve with croutons scattered over.

Raclette is available from most good cheese shops,and by mail-order (cold weather only) from: Ripon Cheese Stores, 26 Uppper Tachbrook Street, London SW1 VIW (0171-931 0638); Jeroboams, 6 Clarendon Road, London W11 3AA (0171-727 9359); Paxton & Whitfield, 93 Jermyn Street, London SW1Y 6JE (0171-930 0259). The Cheesemonger, 30A Victoria Street, Edinburgh EH2JW (031-226 6215) supplies Bill Hogan's Desmond cheeses by post.

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