A Cheesy French Dinner Party Trick So Good, It’s in My Weekly Rotation

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On a rainy Friday afternoon, my husband Guillaume and I grabbed a couple of umbrellas and headed to our friend Ismael’s apartment for raclette—a dish based on copious amounts of gooey, melted cheese.

Though some of our Parisian friends would have you believe that the raclette is as French as the right to protest, most people agree that it actually originated in the Swiss Alps. As the story goes, a tired shepherd was refueling next to the fire, contemplating his lackluster meal of potatoes and cheese, when he had a eureka moment and decided to melt said cheese over the potatoes. Et voila: raclette.

Since then, the tradition has been embraced by the French and evolved for modern dining habits. You can still find restaurants where a waiter will heat a half-wheel of cheese tableside, then scrape the oozing fromage over your choice of accompaniments. For convenience and comfort, and to avoid a lava slide of hot cheese, the home cook can do just fine with a raclette grill, which acts simultaneously as cheese melter, grill, and industrial-chic centerpiece.

Ismael lives in Montmartre, just north of our apartment in the 9th arrondissement, so we decided to walk up Rue des Martyrs, a street lined with food stores, and stop for provisions along the way.

As we climbed the hill, people scurried in and out of shops, gathering materials for their own festive lunches. It was a pont, or bridge, in France, which means a long weekend. Those of us who stayed in Paris made the most of it by eating and drinking, getting a head start on our gueule de bois, the French term for hangover, which literally translates to “wood face.”

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I wasn’t totally sold on the raclette concept. To me, it was just another version of fondue: a campy way to gorge on cheese, but not a meal per se.

Though my feelings on the raclette were ambivalent, I was up for any cozy form of socializing. Since moving from New York to Paris, I realized that winter days were noticeably shorter—the morning sky stayed dark until 8:30 am. Rather than mourn the loss of sunlight, I took to embracing hygge to the fullest. The cozier, the better. And if I could socialize and be in bed watching SVU by 9 p.m., better still.

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We stopped at a wine shop to pick up a couple of bottles (a bubbly Cremant to kick things off and a light red Bourgogne for once things heated up). Then we popped into a charcuterie to buy a selection of sliced meats—jambon cuit (cooked ham), saucisson (sausage), and rosette (basically French salami).

Supplies in hand, we continued uphill, past the seedy red-light stores in Pigalle, and arrived to Ismael’s as the rain started to taper off. His apartment was just as you’d imagine a small, artsy loft in Montmartre: an open kitchen, high ceilings, exposed old wooden beams and tall windows looking out on the rest of Paris.

As we made a round of double-kisses across the apartment, I noticed an intoxicating, earthy smell that made my mouth start watering.

Ismael waved me over to the oven and proudly showed me the two bubbling casseroles inside. It looked like potatoes, cheese, and … were those bits of bacon?

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“The tartiflettes,” he told me, then smiled, pointing, “and that one has truffles.”

I took out my camera and began to take pictures of the raclette set-up. It’s one of those situations where I enjoy being an American, because I can unabashedly take as many photos and Instagram pictures as I want. This is new to me, I explain. I’m doing my research.

The dining table was covered with dishes: boiled new potatoes, sliced onions, cornichons, a green salad, several baguettes, mounds of different charcuterie, and of course, fromage—various types of raclette cheese stacked like poker chips. There was a plain cow’s milk fromage; a smoky cheese; a cheese au poivre (with black peppercorn); and a cheese with a dark lightning-bolt of funk through its middle, which I later learned is called Morbier.

We were at least a dozen people, so there were two raclette grills. Once the tartiflettes hit the table, it was time to begin—we swarmed the spread in unison. Taking cues from the Frenchies, I claimed one of the small trays, filled it with a square of cheese, then set it inside the grill to melt.

“I like to put onions in the cheese,” Guillaume leaned over and told me. Brilliant man I married. For the next go, I’d do the same.

I looked around and noticed that everyone had their own plan of attack. Some people piled on the charcuterie; others were potato purists; some plates were fully loaded; others took it slow and steady, pacing themselves for the long race ahead. I arranged my plate with potatoes, some of the jambon cuit, and a few pieces of lettuce (because balance!).

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Once my cheese was bubbling hot, I grabbed the tray and tipped it over my plate, letting the cheese ooze over the meat and potatoes.

“Now, you can get the next one ready,” said Guillaume. I prepared another tray, this time with the smoky cheese and a few sliced onions, and set it to melt.

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We retreated to our separate corners, around the table and on couches, and ate our creations. When I returned for round two, I dipped into the tartiflette—a delicious, creamy, salty story unto itself.

Several platefuls later, our cheese-fueled momentum slowed. More bottles of wine were opened, and the group shifted toward the living room. Someone started playing the keyboard, and someone else joined on the guitar; a few people started lazily dancing. Our host didn’t clear plates either, inviting people to keep picking as day turned to night.

At the end of the night, still full, Guillaume and I grabbed our umbrellas and headed back down the sloping streets of Montmartre.

“I think I’m a raclette convert,” I told him.

“Uh huh,” he replied, as if he knew all along that I would come around.

It was just as I thought dinner (or lunch) parties should be: tasty, satisfying, and so laid back. All of the hygge and none of the fuss.

Lately, we’ve been doing raclette on an almost weekly basis. I’m finding little ways to make the tradition my own—adding personal touches here and there—like a big arugula salad with tahini-Dijon mustard dressing, or some slow-roasted plum tomatoes.

Raclette is a potluck with direction, a dinner party with a hands-on component—and it’s fast becoming my favorite, very French way of entertaining.

Do you ever just want to have cheese for dinner? Let us know in the comments below.

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