Raclette is not "fast food" Fondue! Fondue is a mixture of different cheeses of different ages along with other goodies. Raclette is just one cheese. Both take about the same amount of time to prepare and eat. Anyway - fondue is another story.
Note: Apparently raclette is of French origin, but the Swiss
have adopted it and like to think of it as a true Swiss speciality. That said, let's get into the important stuff:
What you need to make Raclette:
The more the better. Raclette is a community thing. Think of it as the Swiss version of a BBQ. There will never be everyone served at once - so some people will be eating and the rest will be chatting, exchanging news and generally just enjoying each other's company.
I find some combined inside-outside place is the ideal for raclette. The guests can sit inside while the smelly raclette is outside. We usually eat in the living room and put the oven on the adjacent balcony. This keeps the smell out and still has a short serving distance. In summer of course we're all outside, but since raclette is mainly eaten in wintertime... Having the oven outside might seem slightly inconvenient (and cold) to you but if you've ever tried to air out the cheese smell of your flat then you know why I'm suggesting to have it outside. Besides, when there are many people eating, the cheese might actually get too soft and begins to melt entirely instead of just the top layer. Now being outside cools it down much quicker than being inside.
Originally raclette was made near an open fire using embers. Nowadays there are two types of ovens: a real one, where you put a half wheel of cheese in it and let the heater melt the top layer, which you then scrape off onto a plate. That's also where the word raclette originates: it comes from the French "racler", meaning "to scrape". Hard-core raclette eaters will scoff at the second type of machine. Strictly speaking it doesn't have anything to do with raclette anymore since you don't scrape the cheese anymore but put little 0.5cm thick slices on little trays and have them heated in some sort of a grill. Still, one "advantage" of this kind of machine is that since it's sitting on the table no-one's absent because they have to scrape the cheese. And everyone can eat at once. But it's just these points that make the authentic experience. You don't want to be rushed when eating raclette and the absent person, the scraper really is the most important person as the quality of the raclette depends on his/her skills! There is another speciality the table-grill can never provide you with: "les réliqieuses" (French) or in German: "Jungfrauen". When you scrape the cheese off the half-wheel from time to time the crust on the edges builds up. Lucky is the one who gets his raclette with the this time cut off crust. Servings with this crust are called "les réligieuses" - don't ask me why.
P.S. Better a Raclette from a table oven than no Raclette at all!
Pictures of both kinds of ovens can be seen on: http://www.jill.net/recipes/recipes/raclette.html
You need about one potato per serving. Use small firm potatoes (in Switzerland we use charlotte and the aptly named raclette varieties). Boil the potatoes in their skins until they're done and keep them somewhere warm. Remember: raclette is cheese with potatoes and not potatoes with cheese!
Albert Herring says: "We use nicolas (standard Belgian firm spud) plus rattes which I only ever see round here and some others: kriel/grenaille, corne de gatte."
While researching I found that some sources mentioned
ham. In my - admittedly short - life's experience I've never ever had
raclette served with ham though! The following are what we serve with
dwardu says: "I've had raclette with ham, salami, and a wide variety of other cold meats from the salumeria. Nothing beats that."
Grenoble - France
mkb says: "hah, i just had raclette last night with cooked ham, raw ham, a bunch of different sausages, and pickles and onions and something else i may have forgotten..."
Grenoble - France
Hm - ok. This seems to be a France specific tradition, maybe even isolated to Grenoble? :)
Most important is (obviously) the cheese. You can't just use any cheese for raclette. What you need is a good 3 to 5 months old raclette cheese, preferably from the Wallis. We usually use "Altsenn". Another commonly used brand is "Walker". After trying both we came to prefer the "Altsenn" quality. No two cheeses will ever taste the same - even if they are of the same brand. They're a bit like wines and years. I don't know what kinds of brands are available outside Switzerland. But I do know that raclette cheeses also exist in other parts of the world - you will have to try out for yourself which ones taste best and have the best consistency for scraping. (Recommendations will be listed here.)
(Anecdote: We once had a cheese that made huge (5cm diameter!) bubbles, like bubble gum and it tasted like plastic, too. In the end the bubbles got too close to the heater and the cheese even started to burn. Needless to say that we never bought that brand again.)
You need about 200-250g of cheese per person, buy a half-wheel for the first kind of oven and a rectangular block for the table-based machine. Two half-wheels are advisable if you are many people - that way one half can always cool down a bit. Don't worry about using it all up. You can store the cheese for quite some time. Wrap it into an old kitchen-towel and store it dry in either the fridge or the freezer. Once a half-wheel has been scraped down too far to be used on the oven again, you can cut it up and use it either on the table-based oven or on lasagne or pasta or in your sandwich or...
Albert Herring says: "Cheese: a lot of Belgian semi-hard cheeses work and are sold in handy slices for the grill
method but, otherwise you see some Savoy cheeses (rippoz) and some echt Swiss raclettes on sale here. Belgian cheese: Maredsous, Chimay; (most abbey cheeses, actually.)"
Once you've bought the cheese you have to prepare it. Put it on an old newspaper and start scraping off the crust. This removes the (sometimes) mouldy and very very salty top layer of the crust. (Don't cut it off though!)
OK. Have you got it all ready? Guests in place, the table
set, pickles in close reach? Let's get started then:
Put the cheese on the oven and turn on the heat. Wait for the top layer of the cheese to start melting. Wait some more. Is it bubbling? Good. Now scrape off the top layer onto a plate. Add a potato - serve. Everyone can add pickles, curry powder, pepper etc. to their taste.
And as my mother's old recipe says: "With each helping of raclette, serve one glass of Fendant."