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Doing raclettes on New Year's Day

France French cuisine

Raclette pan and spatula

In North America, we have many different ways to celebrate the new year.  For some, New Year's day is not complete without popping corks and sprinkled confetti.  For others, the main event is watching an ugly ball drop in the midst of a crowd of intoxicated onlookers. For others (in Philadelphia), string bands with fancy costumes provide a special, if somewhat strange, spectacle to mark the occasion. In France, oysters and champagne are staples of New Year's celebrations, but there are many unique regional traditions as well.  And each family adds its own twist.  

When I was a child, we lived in France's Rhône-Alpes region (actually, since last New Year's Day it is officially "Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes").  We lived a stone's throw from the French-Alps and from Savoie, France's département bordering the Swiss Alps. My family often celebrated the new year by hosting friends for a raclette feast.  Raclette is the name of a cheese produced in western Switzerland and Savoie from cow's milk. From medieval times, shepherds would take this semi-hard cheese when they were pasturing flocks in the mountains, and in the evening, they would light a fire and put chunks of raclette cheese on rocks over the fire before scraping the melted cheese onto bread and eating.   

The modern practice of "doing a raclette" is much more elaborate and, because the act of cooking is participatory, it can get wild and crazy--especially when participants are hungry!  At the center of the table is the raclette machine (similar to a fondue setup).  This electrical apparatus has coils that heat up melting chunks of cheese in little pans.  The units often include a hot surface for grilling vegetables.  Circulating around the table are bowls of potatoes, pickled onions, cornichons, and plates of thin-sliced ham, dried meats and a mix of cheeses--the kinds of ingredients that would all keep fairly long in a shepherd's sack in the mountains. After melting the cheese, you pour the melted contents over a baked or boiled potato and toss on some grilled vegetables, a slice or two of meat and some pickles, et voila, le repas! The meal is best consumed with a hot drink or, preferably, a dry-white wine.

If you feel adventurous but lack a raclette machine, you can always try melting the cheese on a preheated skillet or plug-in griddle.  Below are some cheeses that make for delicious combinations. Most will be available at big grocery store chains like Wegmann's, Whole Foods or Trader Joe's.  If not, you can probably find a good, comparable mix of cheeses to use ranging from creamy and soft to hard or crumbly.


Raclette cheese

Melted raclette cheese.  CC BY-SA 3.0,

As noted above, Raclette is produced from cows milk in Savoie, France and Switzerland. It is a semi-hard cheese produced in wheels, so you usually buy it as a wedge or slab.



Roquefort blue cheese. CC BY-SA 3.0,

 I always like to sprinkle in a little blue with some of the melted hard-cheese for flavor. Roquefort is one of the world's best blue cheeses and is made in the south of France in the département Occitan.  This cheese is made from sheep's milk and is aged in caves in Roquefort-sur-Soulzon.


Camembert de Normandie

Camembert cheese. CC BY-SA 3.0,

Camembert is a creamy soft cheese that originated in Normandy in northern France.  It is made from cow's milk and sold in round boxes.  The cheese is similar to brie with its edible white rind, but the flavor is more complex.



A slab of Comté By Photo: Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Comté is a hard-cheese produced from unpasteurized cow's milk in the Franche-Comté, a heavily agricultural region just north of Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes on the eastern border of France with Switzerland.  It is very similar to gruyère produced in wheels and with a stiff rind that should not be eaten.  Each wheel is graded for age, taste and texture. When in France, we buy this cheese at its source.  One of our family favorites!

If you enjoy reading about France's regional culinary traditions, you'll want to check out Ann Mah's Mastering the Art of French Eating: From Paris Bistros to Farmhouse Kitchens, Lessons in Food and Love.   We sell this book both individually and as part of our France overall book bundle.


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