Being that we have been snow challenged this ski season here in the Rockies, I’m feeling a little envious and nostalgic when I see the reports of snow sweeping across Europe.
Skiing was and is a big deal in my family. Raised by a Norwegian mother whose main form of transportation as a child were her skis, my mother and father had my brother and I up on skis when I was two years old and my brother was three. They would take us to the top of Big Bear mountain in California, one of us wedged between their legs as we rode up the t-bar or rope tow. When we reached the top, they would simply give us a push and we would bomb our way down the mountain. Both of my parents were gorgeous skiers who gracefully sashayed their way down the slopes pulling up along side of us yelling at us to turn here and there.
Our feet tucked into lace-up leather boots, we skied on our red and white wooden skis wearing our heavy wool Nordic sweaters and hats knitted by my grandmother, me in red and my brother in blue.
Years later we would take the little red train through the Swiss alps to our small chalet in Gstaad which is in the southwestern region of Switzerland.
With a reputation as a playground for the rich and famous, I remember it as a charming village with a bit of old Hollywood thrown in. It wasn’t unusual to see Audrey Hepburn, Roger Moore, David Niven or Elizabeth Taylor slipping into the Olden for a family dinner. It wasn’t until Natalie Wood died that the spectacle of paparazzi showed up in force to capture photos of Robert Wagner and his children, then it suddenly felt like Beverly Hills disguised in a blanket of snow.
The mountains were pristine and beautiful, the European skiers, pushy and fierce in the lift lines like nothing I had ever seen in the States but we just thought it was kind of funny and went along with it.
After a long day of skiing from one mountain to another, from one picturesque village to the next and back again before the sun set, we would end up in one of the small family owned restaurants sharing boots of beer and glasses of wine, scraping raclette cheese off of a big wheel that was perched over a candle in the middle of the table.
You would tip the wheel so the cheese would melt down and then you’d pull it onto your warmed plate. There would always be a basket of piping hot new potatoes and platters of pearl onions, cornichons and dried meats to eat along with the cheese.
After a day of sun and snow in our faces and the warming effect of the wine, our cheeks would be blushed and the easy conversation rolled from the death-defying ski jumps that my brother would take, to memorable encounters with one of the charming ski instructors and of course, the epic tumbles and crashes of the day.
What sounded like a heartbroken woman wailing in the background was actually a man sitting in the corner by the fireplace playing a saw with a bow. It was beautiful, haunting and even a little amusing, but truly, it was the final ingredient to the ultimate Swiss experience.
A Medieval dish of the Swiss peasants, farmers would pack a wheel of cheese, dried meats and pickled vegetables to take with them as they drove their cowherd across the alps. In the evenings, they would set the wheel of cheese on a rock by the campfire until it began to melt and then scrape the cheese onto their dish of veggies and meats and Raclette was born.
Served with a charcuterie platter, bread, new potatoes, roasted or pickled baby onions and sweet gherkins, this is a fun meal to eat with a few friends or family. Savoy wine, Riesling or Pinot Gris pair well as does a good beer.
Ingredients for 4-6 servings:
1 large wedge of Swiss or French Raclette cheese
1 dozen new potatoes, boiled until tender
An assortment of pickled veggies, cornichons and dried meats such as prosciutto
These days, you can find electric Raclette heaters, or you can do what many of the European restaurants do, thinly slice the cheese placing the strips across oven safe plates. Warm the plates under a broiler or in a hot oven and then bring the plates to the table and allow everyone to garnish as they please. If you dare, you can do as I do and simply pull out your kitchen torch and melt the cheese on the plates at the table.