This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Aliette de Bodard discusses convivial meals in France.
Pierrade, fondue and raclette: French convivial meals
by Aliette de Bodard
If you go to a French cookware store, you'll find that there often is a section titled "convivial", or some very similar words--and what they sell might seem very odd if you have never been to France: there's a series of what seem outlandish devices, accompanied by pictures of happy-looking people gathered around a table. Those devices are used for what I'd term "convivial meals."
These meals all have in common the very small prep time, and the fact that the instruments for cooking the food are laid on the table for everyone to use. This makes them a very popular choice for large and/or festive gatherings, or simply for a change of fare compared to oven-baked or casseroled dishes.
Here is a selection of those meals:
Pierrade comes from the French "pierre", which means stone, and that's basically what a pierrade is: it's a flat length of stone (not sure, but probably marble) laid on top of a resistor which causes its entire surface to become hot. The star of pierrade dishes is the meat: very often it's beef or lamb, but it can also be sausages, chicken, ... Pierrade meat needs to be sliced very thin, because pretty much the only part of the meat that will cook is the one in contact with the hot stone (unlike a frying pan, there is no heat-haze that helps the meat firm up). My family traditionally eats pierrade with oven-baked potatoes, but it can also be eaten on its own, with copious amounts of meat; with sliced vegetables cooked on the stone (peppers, zucchini, tomatoes); or with a simple salad. The basic process is simple: you set up the pierrade to warm up (oiling it and/or adding a thin layer of salt if the meat you plan to cook is lean and won't release enough grease to lubricate the stone). Once the pierrade is warm, everyone can come and sit at the table: platters of meat and side dishes are passed around, and everyone cooks their own meat on the pierrade. Possibly the only time-consuming part of the process is the cleaning-up of the pierrade itself: it always ends up covered in a layer of carbonised fat, which can be a real pain to scrape off the stone!
Raclette derives its name from the cheese that forms its base: raclette is a firm, yellow cheese with a characteristic taste--its name deriving from "racler", which means "to scrape (off)" (we'll see why in a minute). This is a winter dish, which originally came from the Alps--but it has now spread far from its area of origin, and is pretty much eaten all over France (though the best cheeses and raclette dishes are still found in Savoie and/or Switzerland, and it's still traditional to eat a raclette when going into the Alps for a skiing holiday).
The ingredients of a raclette are hearty fare: there are thin slices of raclette cheese, boiled potatoes, and a variety of charcuterie from cooked ham to saucisson (dry sausage) to Grisons meat. Like pierrade, raclette requires specialised equipment, namely a "appareil a raclette" (raclette device). It also consists of a heating element, but the setup is a bit different from a pierrade: a raclette device heats things up from above: each participant is given a "poelon", a rectangular pan with a handle, which then fits underneath the resistor. This is for melting the cheese: one or two slices are put in the poelon--when they're melted, the cheese is poured over the meat and/or potatoes in the plate, and everything eaten as it is--the warmth of the melted cheese combining with the salty strong taste of the meat, and the earthier flavor of boiled potatoes (the boiled potatoes are generally set on the device itself, on the metal tray above the heating element, which keeps them warm the entire meal).
The traditional raclette setup, which you still see in restaurants in the Alps, is an entire chunk of cheese set under a resistor: the surface of the cheese gradually melts, and you scrape off the melted bits as they become available--hence the name. It's usually so hearty (one massive chunk of cheese for two people) you're all set up for the winter!
Fondue is another Alpine dish, and has become a popular winter dish as well (and, like raclette, it's also traditionally eaten on skiing holidays). Like raclette, its main ingredient is melted cheese, but it's a slightly different beast. Fondue means "melted", and that's pretty much what the dish is: melted cheese--with a twist. While the cheeses are important (you usually have two or three different mountain cheeses such as Beaufort--which cheeses are used depend a lot on the area of the Alps you're in, as well as on what's available), the key element of a fondue is the wine. And it has to be good wine, not cooking wine, since it gives its characteristic taste to the mix: the ones generally used are Apremont, Abymes or Chaparellian, all white wines from Savoie (to give you an idea, most fondues have half as much wine in them as they have cheese!).
A fondue device ("appareil a fondue") is basically a warm container, with a rim wide enough for everyone to cluster around it. At the beginning of the meal, the appareil a fondue is brought to the table with the fondue steaming warm inside (which keeps everything to a viscous stage). Everyone is given a small skewer or fork and bits of bread, which are then used to dip into the cheese mixture.
This is just a sampling of the most common convivial meals: you'll find other devices in French cookware stores, such as crepe (thin pancakes) makers--but I mostly stuck to the ones I had tested *grin* They're all worth a try, and combine a great time among friends with awesome food--what's not to like?
Aliette de Bodard lives in Paris, France.