Drawn together: the raclette grill

Categories: Behind the stalls

Award-winning blogger and Borough Market regular Ed Smith displays a talent for illustration as well as the written word, as he talks to stallholders about the tools of their trade. This month: the raclette grill

Bill Oglethorpe, Kappacasein

We are famous for toasted cheese sandwiches and raclette, though we also now sell the cheese, yoghurt and butter that we produce ourselves in a railway arch in Bermondsey. Six months ago, we moved our stall to a bricks and mortar site at the Borough High Street end of Stoney Street. But for 14 years we made our toasties and grilled raclette from a trolley wheeled to various positions in the Market.

It all began in 1998 when I was working for Neal’s Yard Dairy. I was based at their Covent Garden shop and they were celebrating the 30th anniversary of the company. They offered a free hot food pitch outside the shop and asked if any of us wanted to do something. My friend had a recipe for Welsh rarebit and I had a raclette machine because I’d been to school in Switzerland and returned with one! So, we thought we would have a go.

That was a one-off, but a few years later Neal’s Yard Dairy asked me if I would do something similar in front of their Borough Market site. At the time, I was developing my Ogleshield cheese with James Montgomery, so it provided a good opportunity to use some of it and get direct feedback. I changed the rarebit option to a toastie, as I thought it would be easier to make and eat on the street, and went from there really, soon moving to the Market proper.

An open fire
Raclette is both a style of cheese and a dish. The cheese is a semi-hard cow’s milk cheese traditionally made in Switzerland and the Savoie area of France. It melts really well, so Swiss farmers and cow herders would heat it by an open fire, scraping the cheese onto bread or potatoes once cooked—and that’s the dish that’s known by the same name.

At Borough, we use my Ogleshield cheese for the raclette dish, as well as another cheese I’ve developed in my Bermondsey dairy, which I call London Raclette. The choice depends on stock levels, age and which cheese is at its optimum at the time.

Both the Ogleshield and London Raclette work really well because you get multiple layers of flavour and texture as they cook. The Ogleshield is particularly interesting as a raclette cheese—because it’s made solely from Jersey cow milk, there’s a really high fat content, which allows the top of the cheese to roast and turn golden, rather than burn. There’s this really nice combination of creaminess, crustiness, and Maillard reaction—that browning flavour you get when you roast beef or chicken.

Browning and melting
Although the original Swiss farmers would’ve just held cheese up to a fire, the common way of melting raclette cheese now is on a purpose-built machine, which holds two half wheels of cheese at one time—so one piece is always cooking while we serve from the other one.

Imagine each piece of cheese as a semi-circle—the flat side is the open face of the cheese. When it’s being cooked, this faces upwards and is parallel with a heating element. But the cheese is held on a spindle, so when it’s at the right level of browning and melting, you either swivel the cheese down towards a plate or, as we do, lift the cheese off, then scrape it over just-boiled new potatoes. My first machine was electric, but now I use a gas one as the element is stronger and cooks the cheese faster and more evenly.

The person using the machine needs to have good judgement. If the face of the cheese is too close to the grill it’ll burn without sufficiently melting. But too far away and the cheese won’t turn brown. Obviously as the cheese melts you need to keep adjusting its position so the face of it remains the right distance. It probably takes people about a month to get really comfortable making raclette. But on a really busy day at Borough, we could easily do 400-500 portions, so we get plenty of practice.

Keeping things simple
I serve the melted cheese over new potatoes and pickles, which is traditional. People sometimes ask for ham, but I think that’s the French style. In a Swiss raclette restaurant there’s usually a starter of ham, but when the cheese comes out it’s just with potatoes for bulk and pickles to cut through the fat. I guess I’ve always gone along with the principle of keeping things simple. It should really be all about the cheese, which needs to be good enough to shine on its own. Personally, I think adding ham provides too much umami—the meat and cheese basically cancel each other out.

In some ways, I’ve been surprised at how much people like our dishes. But I’m proud of what we produce, and the fact we use our own cheeses, plus I think there’s quite a lot of theatre to the process.

Am I sick of raclette after all these years? Not at all. I open every Saturday and I still look forward to a plate of it, plus a toastie. There are worse quality control tasks out there.