What is the origin of the raclette?

The origin of raclette

Let's delve into history and let the origin of raclette guide us through the picturesque mountains of Valais in Switzerland. This dish, so popular today, has its roots in ancient writings which, surprisingly, take us back to the 16th century.

The story of Gaspard Ambuel

Among the notable figures of Valais, Gaspard Ambuel, better known by his pseudonym Collinus, stands out as one of the first witnesses of this rich cheese-making tradition. He exercised his talents in Sion as a doctor and pharmacist. Ambuel contributed to a notable work in 1574, called "Vallesiae descritpio", a work from the pen of Josias Simler of Zurich. In a gesture of dedication, Ambuel addressed his pages to Conrad Gessner, a renowned naturalist and botanist. He counted among his friends the famous Erasmus. To give more depth to his text, Ambuel was able to rely on the historical knowledge of Hildbrand I of Riedmatten, who occupied the episcopal see of Sion from 1565 to 1604.

The Publication in Zurich

This document was printed by Christophe Froschauer in Zurich. The Valais historian Dionys Imesch, holding several positions including that of professor at the college of Brig, parish priest in Naters and president of the Haut-Valais historical society, speaks of Ambuel with praise. He points out that Ambuel was not only a renowned Swiss scholar of his time, but also a key informant for Conrad Gessner and Erasmus, providing them with scientific information about Valais.

An ancient testimony on the origin of raclette

In the Bologna edition, a passage in Latin offers us a journey through time, plunging us directly into daily life in Valais in the 16th century. When we look at its translation, this extract reveals a picturesque scene. Where Valaisans gather assiduously in a place called “Augstport”. Surprisingly, despite the apparent absence of sturdy trees in these places, they found a way to light a fire. They cleverly exploited rhododendrons. Gathered around this source of heat, these inhabitants settled comfortably. They unpacked supplies from their bags and practiced the art of melting cheese. These delicacies, according to the description, were distinguished by exceptional flavor, combining fat, sweetness and tenderness.

The Augstbord pass and the origin of raclette

Collinus, in his writings, refers to a unique tradition of the Valaisans. During their visits to the cold healing waters of Augstbord, located near Grächen, they used to roast cheese. Then they ate it while sipping cold water, beyond the forest line. This practice was intrinsically linked to the Augstbord pass, a passage frequented by mule drivers to join Saint-Nicolas to Meiden, nestled in the Turtmann valley. It is in the heart of this mountainous landscape that the origins of raclette can be seen. Plunging us into the captivating traditions of 16th century Valais.

Origin of Valais raclette

Origin of Raclette in the 16th century

Raclette, a traditional Swiss dish, has deep historical roots. Grégoire Ghika, an expert on the subject, detailed in the newspaper 13 Etoiles the ancient practice of roasting cheese. Particularly old hard and soft cheeses, and watering them with spring water. These cheeses were so delicious that they couldn't get enough of them. Although Valais wine, Fendant, is now the beverage of choice during raclette meals. There was once a special interest in the Augstbord water, considered miraculous. Ghika wonders about the contents of the “small gourds” that the Valaisans brought with them.

Raclette in the 18th century and its origins

During the 18th century, there was an increase in written references to cheese. For example, in 1768, Abbot Clément, during his observations at Mase in Valais, highlighted a marked preference for roasted fatty cheese. Particularly during meals containing meat. Then, towards the beginning of the 19th century, Hildbrand Arnold Schiner, a scholar and notable from the canton of Valais, in his work dedicated to the department of Simplon, detailed the eating habits of the Valaisans. He mentions that in Anniviers, roasted cheese occupied a central place during funeral meals. Furthermore, in Savièse, this dish was traditionally on the menu of wedding meals. Beyond these examples, Schiner provides numerous other references illustrating the importance of cheese in Valais culture."

Evolution of raclette in the 19th century

Throughout the 19th century, the term "raclette" began to emerge in writings about Valais. This word, originating from the Franco-Provençal dialect, means "to scrape" in Valais dialect. Although travelers observed the practice of raclette during their visits, the dish itself was not yet named "Raclette". Later, this term was written with a circumflex accent (Râclette), reflecting its dialectical pronunciation.

Traditional practices

According to the stories of the ancient Valaisans, the preparation of raclette took on a very particular ritual. Armed with a simple piece of wood, the shepherds had the habit of exposing half a volume of cheese to the burning embers of the fire. Then, when the autumn frosts set in, they delicately scraped the melted cheese onto a piece of crusty bread. For these shepherds, this technique was not only practical, but it also offered a delicious way to enjoy cheese in the great outdoors.

Eugène Rambert, a central figure in 19th-century French-speaking literature, played a crucial role in associating the term "raclette" with the culinary practice with which we are familiar today. Not only was he an art critic, historian, poet, and philosopher. Rambert was also an undisputed lover of the mountains, as evidenced by the Rambert cabin located above Ovronnaz, which is dedicated to him.

In his writings, Rambert evokes a popular trip among the intellectuals and artists of his time: a visit to Mayens-de-Sion. This resort was a popular destination for tourists, especially at the turn of the 20th century. The writer describes the daily routine of a city dweller vacationing there, emphasizing the importance of summer activities, including outdoor picnics. These country outings were the ideal opportunity to taste raclette, as evidenced by his declaration: "We attended two of these joyful picnics: two in four days! It must be said that it was raclette time ."

The living description

The way Rambert describes the preparation of raclette is a real treat for anyone reading his words. According to him, it all starts with a careful selection of a cheese, fresh from the mountain, which must ideally be fatty and matured to perfection. Once this choice is made, the cheese is carefully cut in half and placed in front of a blazing brazier, until it reaches a golden color and a texture that is both soft and bubbling.

The crucial moment

As the atmosphere fills with anticipation, the crucial moment arrives: meticulously scraping the melted cheese with a knife, the emblematic gesture that gives its name to “raclette”. According to Rambert, to fully experience this taste experience, you need to be outdoors, surrounded by warm friends, and top it all off with a light, sparkling wine. It describes an idyllic atmosphere where one can easily imagine a joyful group, comfortably installed in the shade of the larch trees. The most talented take charge of the cooking, while a devoted young girl serves the wine.

Real raclette experience

Rambert also insists that the true experience of raclette is intrinsically linked to its place of origin, Valais. More precisely, he refers to Mayens-de-Sion, a high altitude place near Sion. For him, enjoying raclette anywhere other than in this picturesque setting would be like wearing inappropriate clothes for the occasion.

Furthermore, the term "raclette" was not only mentioned by Rambert. From the end of the 19th century, several Valais publications regularly mentioned raclette. For example, in 1875, the newspaper "Le Villageois", published by an agricultural company in Sion, referred to raclette in the context of a recipe similar to fondue. This early mention shows that raclette was already well anchored in the culinary culture of Valais at that time.

In summary, Eugène Rambert, thanks to his writings, greatly contributed to the popularization of raclette. He was able to capture the essence of this delicious dish and the ideal context for its tasting. Thanks to figures like him, raclette is today much more than a simple dish; it is a symbol of conviviality, tradition and regional identity.

Raclette: At the heart of Valais stories

Raclette, a warm and traditional dish, has always carved out a special place for itself in Valais culture. Indeed, numerous anecdotes and historical testimonies corroborate this assertion, thus underlining its undeniable popularity and its deep and unshakeable anchoring in the rich Swiss heritage.

The “Friend of the People” and his allusions to raclette

The newspaper “Ami du peuple” describes an intriguing situation regarding the Pupillary Chamber of a Valais commune. Apparently its members demanded bread, wine and cheese in addition to their fees. Moreover, no one challenged them to legally justify such a request. This episode shows how local actors have integrated and perhaps even exploited raclette, highlighting its importance well beyond a simple festive table.

A tradition well anchored before 1880

In 1880, a memorable turning point occurred in the culinary history of Valais. At that time, eight Valais notaries, wishing to celebrate their success, chose to gather at the Café de la Glacière in Sion. There, they had the pleasure of tasting an authentic raclette. This evening, still fresh in people's minds, was punctuated by toasts, fiery discussions and catchy melodies, all exalting the unrivaled flavor of this dish. Furthermore, the use of the word “traditional” to describe raclette testifies, without a shadow of a doubt, to the antiquity of this culinary tradition. In fact, its reputation was so great that several establishments in Sion had included it in their menu, as evidenced by advertisements of the time.

Celebrities and raclette: Valuable testimonies

The importance of raclette was not limited to the inhabitants of Valais. Many personalities have spoken about it or experienced it during their stay in the region. Victor Hugo, for example, enjoyed raclette in Champéry in 1883, leaving his signature in the guestbook of Valais Drinkers. A testimony that illustrates the universal appeal of this dish.

The picturesque writings of Victor Tissot

In 1888, a significant event occurred when Victor Tissot, a renowned journalist, passionately illustrated a raclette scene in the Torrent mountain pasture in Val d'Anniviers. Through Tissot's pen, we are transported to the place, almost feeling the heat of the embers and being captivated by the irresistible scent of melted cheese. He is not content with that, his meticulous description, ranging from the process of preparing the cheese to the moment of tasting, highlights the authenticity and charm of this ancestral tradition. Moreover, through his writings, Tissot does not hide his impatience and enthusiasm for this dish, perfectly illustrating the impact and notoriety of raclette within Swiss culture."

Origin and evolution of Valais raclette

1. A look at the past: Louis Courthion and Valais cheese

Louis Courthion, writer and journalist from Bagnes, in Valais, describes the art of raclette in his 1903 work “The People of Valais”. According to him, raclette is a technique which consists of melting half a wheel of cheese in front of a brazier and serving it to guests. He notes that cheeses from Conches and Bagnes are particularly appreciated for this practice.

2. Raclette through literature and cuisine

Louis Courthion is not the only one to mention raclette. Joseph Favre, famous for his contribution to French cuisine in the 19th century, describes a fatty cheese produced in the Hérens valley in Valais, which resembles raclette cheese. His major work, “The Universal Kitchen Dictionary”, also talks about it. In addition, the Geographical Dictionary of Switzerland links fatty cheese to raclette.

3. Raclette and the influence of village dairies

With the emergence of village dairies at the beginning of the 20th century, raclette became more accessible to the population. These dairies, called "fruitières" in Valais, helped to make raclette a national dish.

4. Raclette as a national dish: The cantonal exhibition of 1909

Raclette officially became a national Valais dish during the cantonal exhibition of Sion in 1909. During this event, an evening dedicated to raclette was organized for the press, thus introducing this dish to a wide audience. The event was a great success and marked the history of raclette.

The Origin of Raclette: Evolution Over the Years

The beginning of the popularity of raclette

From the 1920s, raclette became known beyond its origins. It quickly becomes popular. At the Buffet de la Gare de Sion, it is essential. In 1935, a photo captured a tasting at Château de Valère. This shows its importance in local culture. In 1928, at the cantonal exhibition of Sierre, raclette stood out. It is not only on the menu, but it is also at the heart of the procession.

Raclette: a rich history

Raclette, recognized above all for its unrivaled flavor, but also hides behind it a history that is both rich and fascinating. To illustrate this, let's go back to 1934, in Savièse. It was during this singular event, the blessing of the church cemetery, that raclette found itself propelled to the forefront. This episode, in fact, highlights its undeniable cultural importance in the region. Continuing this momentum, and moving forward a year, in 1935, the Montana Women's Mountaineers Club chose to make a stop in Sion. Driven by their greed, they let themselves be guided towards Melle Héritier's restaurant in Granois/Savièse. Once there, the excitement of savoring raclette is at its peak. And, unsurprisingly, the dishes served are quickly devoured, creating a joyful and festive atmosphere.

Raclette is gaining fame

Over the years, raclette has gained notoriety. This is how in 1964, in Lausanne, a significant event occurred: a float dedicated to raclette appeared. Fruit of the ingenuity of Mr. Zufferey of the Cantonal School of Agriculture, this initiative unequivocally demonstrates the importance and value of raclette in the heart of Valais.

Raclette and the dairy industry

Raclette has a big place in Valais. But it is also linked to the dairy industry. In 1919, delegates from the communes met. They create a federation for milk. Their goal is simple: a fair milk price. They are reacting to a problem: Valais is the only canton without a dairy federation. The war also showed shortcomings. As a result, municipalities created dairies.

The evolution of the dairy sector

Over the years, the milk industry has undergone profound changes. As proof, in 1945, Sion witnessed the emergence of a new entity: the Central Purchasing Center for Valais cheese. This structure stands out for its impressive cheese sales. Then, moving forward in time, more precisely in 1988, an innovative initiative was born with the creation of a cooperative called Alpgold. The latter, by surpassing the capacities of the purchasing center, handles nearly 1000 tonnes of Valais cheese annually. Although these structures embody a certain modernity, production remains anchored in tradition. Raclette, a symbol of this authenticity, is still produced with care in 37 cheese factories and 138 mountain pastures.

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