Raclette is the perfect dinner party dish. Why? Because you leave your guests to do all the cooking. In fact, raclette is both a type of cheese and the name of the dish itself, which, to be fair, arguably has its roots in French-speaking regions of Switzerland rather than France per se. But I've eaten it in many parts of France, so make no apology for including it here. It's a great DIY meal, and your friends will love it.
Raclette was mentioned in medieval writings dating from the late 13th century, as a particularly nutritious meal consumed by peasants in Switzerland and the Savoy region of France, where it remains popular to this day.
Raclette is a semi-firm, cow's milk cheese – most commonly used for melting. It is usually fashioned into a wheel of about 6 kg, but that's far more than you need for a dinner party – about 1kg of cheese will be sufficient for four people. You will need to slice it fairly thinly so that it will fit under a small grill – this can be quite messy, so do it well in advance and then place the cheese in the fridge until your guests arrive.
The cheese is heated, either in front of a fire or on a special machine, then scraped onto diners' plates; in fact, the term raclette derives from the French word racler, meaning "to scrape," a reference to the fact that the melted cheese must be scraped from the unmelted part of the cheese onto the plate.
Traditionally the melting happens in front of an open fire with the big piece of cheese facing the heat. You then regularly scrapes off the melting side. In restaurants, a kind of cradle in which half a round of cheese sits, is brought to your table. A small heater is located over the cheese, and this causes it to melt...just serve yourself. In the home, a variation on this theme is needed in the form of a kind of a small electric grill with individual 'paddles', or coupelles, into which the cheese is placed before placing it under the grill.
The cheese is accompanied by small firm, boiled or steamed waxy potatoes, such as Charlotte, gherkins, pickled onions, and charcuterie meats such as smoked ham and salami, or similar meats. Just boil the potatoes until they are ready; whether you leave the skins on is up to you.
So, simply place some slices of cheese into your 'paddle', place it under the grill, and meanwhile put potatoes and meat on your plate. One the cheese has melted – it becomes quite runny – simply pour it over the meat and cheese and tuck in. It's as simple as that.