The wistfully misty day I drove out to the back of Nimbin to visit Nimbin Valley Dairy was composed of small pleasures. Meeting owners Kerry and Paul was one; the black labrador puppy Kerry tried to persuade me to take away with me another; the goats grazing in a landscape of lush pasture, ponds, mountains and valleys another again.
But it was possibly the potatoes smothered in molten cheese trotted down by Kerry to the dairy where Paul was stirring a vat of soon-to- be camembert that charmed me most. ‘It’s our raclette-style Running Cow,’ he explained.
Raclette! In a swoop of memory it came rushing back to me, Balmain in the early nineties, Bruce Butcher’s wonderful cheese shop filled with exotic cheeses, and Bruce himself telling me I should host the latest thing, a raclette party. Naturally some ten minutes later I exited his shop clutching a small electric grill complete with a series of wedge-shaped trays, a hunk of cheese and a mental shopping list for items like potatoes and gherkins. I duly held my raclette party for a handful of friends and we all concluded it was fun, albeit gimmicky; need I say that the grill was never employed again?
Raclette-dining is similar to fondues. The actual word refers both to the type of
cheese, a faintly nutty cheese with excellent melting properties, and the dish itself. Both are indigenous to parts of Switzerland and the Savoie region of France, and derive from the tradition of Swiss cowherders who in the evenings would place the cheese next to the campfire and, when soft, scrape it on to bread. (The French verb racler means to scrape.) Dried or cured meats, pickled onions and gherkins are the usual accompaniments alongside the mandatory boiled potatoes. Kerry had actually arranged slices of their own ‘home-made’ corned beef beside the baking dish of cheesy potatoes, which is another lovely possibility.
For such a cheese-lover as myself, it did seem out of character that I did not embrace the raclette fad more vigorously – but my objection had more to do with the ritual
of interaction. I understand that this is a very social – and sociable – mode of dining, everyone clustered around a common font of comestibles, but there is something unbounded about it all, like all-you-can-eat buffets, that bothers me. I’m just not really much of a team player. And fondues are the same. Another Swiss/French notion, these too consist of melted cheese which is then applied to other ingredients. The 1960s and early 70s were very big fondue years when it was common to find a fondue set in a modern kitchen, complete with the long- handled forks used to dunk chunks of bread into a simmering pool of wine- or kirsch- flavoured cheese. Then came the variations, the chocolate fondues which required you to spear ripe fruits like strawberries and bananas and tangerines and dip them into liquid chocolate. Presumably these were the forerunner of the chocolate fountain.
The Italians have their own savoury version called fonduta which may include the luxury of truffles and egg yolks, as well as bagna cauda, a garlicky-anchovy-butter-flavoured
oil in which to suspend fresh vegetables. The Chinese call their rendition Hot Pots, the Malaysians Steamboats and the Japanese Shabu Shabu – although these Asian interpretations consist on the whole of a simmering stock into which thinly sliced meats, tofu, sprouts, vegetables and some form of starch are introduced. Communal eating, and very jolly too if that is how you like to dine.
I did love Kerry’s take on it though, my fork stabbing into creamy cheese-topped potato then a slice of corned beef in the comfortable company of these goat-rearing, cheese-making men, in much the same way, I imagine, as I would have loved a raclette or a fondue in a tiny Swiss Alpine village.