La Tzoumaz: Exploring Switzerland’s Raclette Roots

by Simon Willis  |  Published January 20, 2015

Switzerland’s region of Valais is not only a haven for winter skiers and summer trekkers, but also the birthplace of the country’s much-loved cheese dish Raclette. First eaten over 700-years ago and prepared in the same way today, Raclette’s popularity has never diminished. Discover why high-altitude alpine mountainsides surrounding towns like La Tzoumaz help produce the wheel-shaped cheese in its finest form.

Sledging at La Tzoumaz, in Valais, Switzerland. (Photo: O. Bruchez via Flickr)

Sledging at La Tzoumaz, in Valais, Switzerland. (Photo: O. Bruchez via Flickr)

A gust of Swiss Alpine wind slams the factory door shut. “I feel sorry for Americans,” says Yohann Magnin, the ginger-bearded cheesmaker. He plunges his arms into the swirling pale yellow liquid. “Here in Valais we have the perfect milk to make Raclette. There is too much pasteurized cheese in America.”

Yohann pulls his hands out, allowing milk to drip through his fingers. “I rub the curds in my hands like this to see if it’s ready.” He closes his eyes, inhaling deeply through his nostrils. “My nose tells me when it’s perfect.” He chucks the curds back into the mixture. “This is not. We have to wait a little longer.”

I’ve come to the heart of Valais, hoping to digest the traditions of this 700-year old cheese. It’s here in the southwestern canton of Switzerland where the dish (also called Raclette) was born and continues to be devoured by locals and visitors. I’m always keen to explore a country’s identity though its food, especially when it involves scoffing Swiss cheese until the point of a dairy-induced coma.

So here we are on a rainy July morning cramped inside a tiny fromagerie, which perches on the steep Alpine mountainside, learning (with the aid of a translator) the process of Raclette cheese making.

Yohann, a diminutive man with the waist of a slim child, is the only cheesemaker in town and my personal tutor. He studied in France before moving to La Tzoumaz – a small town teetering above the Rhône River. It’s here where for four summer months a year he works from 5am every day producing Raclette. And not just any Raclette; the “very best” Raclette, he declares. A result of the surrounding fields which sprout high-altitude grass, fresh flowers and herbs.

“The cows that eat in these mountains during summer produce the most flavorsome milk,” he says. “You can have the best factory in the world, but if you don’t have the right milk it doesn’t matter.”

Yohann checks the temperature gauge hanging inside the circular bronzed basin; it reads 38 degrees. He scoops some more white curds, smells them and beams “Parfait!”

Then the wooden door swings open and a giant man in a white apron and wellington boots stomps in. Yohann looks up at him. “This is Alexandrau. He will help me with the next stage.” Alexandrau, who is silent, pulls a circular fishing-type net from behind the basin. They each grab one side and plunge it into the liquid. Slowly they drag the net through and close it at the top. “We have to drain the water,” shouts Yohann hooking the bulging net onto a hook. Water gushes out. “We then put the cheese into a container and press down with weights.” he holds up a plastic cylinder. “This is how it gets its shape.”

Raclette has been a Swiss favorite ever since it was invented. Alpine farmers and shepherds would end a day’s work by melting the cheese next to a fire. The top would then be scraped off onto bread. While modern electric grills have quickened the process, Raclette purists maintain that this traditional method is best. “It’s the fire which gives the cheese a smoky taste,” says Yohann, his eyes glistening light blue. “Flames penetrate the skin and singe the inside.”

After purchasing a wheel of cheese for myself I explore the town. As well as being a haven for Raclette, La Tzoumaz is a popular ski destination with surrounding mountains making up 55km of piste. A 10km sledge run and three snowshoeing trails for open up alternative routes around the drastic mountains. But without a snowflake in sight the surrounding trails are turned into a summer biking and hiking paradise. The highlight of which is ‘the trail of senses’ leading from Maison de la Forêt – the Forest House. This walk, aimed mainly towards children, encourages education of the Swiss Alps through the scent of Swiss pine, the squawk of the nutcracker and the taste of bilberries and blueberries.

Right. 1pm. Enough meandering. Time for lunch. Upon recommendation I’ve booked into Le Château de Villa in Sierre, a 45-minute drive from La Tzoumaz. I’ve also been recommended the Dégustation de 5 fromages – A five-cheese Raclette lunch, which I intended to wash down with a few glasses of white wine from the surrounding vineyards.

From the valley I amble up cobbled streets, then down again; stroll alongside roaring rivers and head-high green grape vines; say ‘bonjour’ to two women smoking next to a bus stop; swallow coffee aroma from a small cafe; and receive stares from three old men in flat caps sat on a bench.

Although there are no signs, I believe this to be the place: A white-stone castle with one fairytale turret overlooking a patio of maroon canopies. A young couple unloads a pushchair from the trunk of a black Porsche. Five middle-aged men and women, all decked in fur coats and designer knit-wear, stride towards the small alcove entrance. I trudge behind, in the blue trainers which the day before were described by a friend as rather “homelessy.”

I duck into the restaurant and am shown to my table by a Salvador Dali double, a waiter whose thin curly moustache looks as if someone had doodled on a photo.

He scrapes the thick wooden chair out across the stone floor. He then whips the napkin off the table and spreads it across my lap.
“I already know what I want,” I say pushing the menu away. “I’d like the five-cheese Raclette lunch please, with a glass of Petite Arvine (a white wine recommended by Yohann) and a bottle of water.”

He looks at me intently.“Hhaklet!”

“Yes that’s right Raclette,” I signal five with my hand. “Five please.”

“No, no monsieur. It is pronounced Hhaklet.”

“Ah yes, I see.” I dredge up as much phlegm as possible. “Hhhhhaklet” I say with a smile.

He sighs, grabs the menu off the table and walks away.

The restaurant is full. Six adults and two infants are on the table next to me. One boy tries to climb onto the table; his father, continually pulls him back down without taking his eyes from the adult conversation. Waiters, all wearing white aprons and displaying an array of marvelously diverse moustaches, dash around the dining room. Opposite a young man and woman lean towards each other flicking through photos on a smartphone while their wine bottle drips beads of condensation.

As I tuck my napkin into my collar I hear a smash. The restaurant falls silent. Standing next to the entrance is a waiter, perilously clutching two wine glasses to his tray and looking down to shards of glass on the stone floor. He curses in French and swivels back to the kitchen. Obscenities echo from the hall. A small elderly woman appears from a cupboard, sweeps up the glass and scuttles back inside. I suspect the waiter was fired immediately.

My groaning stomach turns violent when I noticed eight half-wheels of cheese beginning to bubble and radiate yellow from the grill above. The waiter grabs one wheel and with a large knife scrapes its gooey surface onto a plate. He brings it over to my table and points to a town on a laminated map I was given. “Bagnes,” he says.

To accompany the Raclette I’m given a small dish of pickled onions and cornichons, and a basket of baby potatoes. I flip the lip off the wicker basket and steam gushes out. With a fork I prod a potato and plunge it into the silky skinned blob of cheese. The potato, with its skin flapping off, proves useful for twisting and pulling stringy cheese; its blandness allows for the rich nutty flavor of the Raclette to dominate.

The cheese soon disappears and the plate is taken away. The waiter returns four times with cheeses from neighboring towns. “Loutie…Etiez…Vissoie.” When the last blob from Turtmann arrives I feel the cheesy coma, I’d previously relished, heading my way.