Photo: TowerGirl, flickr
Never underestimate the mood-enhancing properties of cheese. From the melted Gruyère on French onion soup to the crisp layer of cheddar over macaroni and cheese, nothing beats a melted cheese dish to warm-up the body (and to revitalize and delight the soul during winter). Cheese meals, like fondue, boost both delight and pleasure thanks not only to their taste but also because they bring together friends and family.
Recently, we spoke with renowned chefs to find out their choices of American cheese for the ever-so-popular fondue. This week, we turn to a lesser known -- yet equally delicious -- Alpine cheese dish that's sure to stimulate joy around the dining table: Tartiflette. Hailing from the Haute-Savoie, the Alpine region of France bordering Switzerland and Italy, Tartiflette is a baked dish consisting of layers of sliced potatoes and onions, bacon, crème fraîche, and topped with melted Reblochon, a soft-ripened cow's milk cheese also from the region.
Tartiflette's distinct strong animal aroma, nutty sweet taste, and thick gooey texture are sure to make a meal unforgettable. Considering the ingredients -- the hearty potatoes, the deliciously fatty smoky bacon, and the rich crème fraîche -- Tartiflette is just like a savory pie without a piecrust (or a potatoes au gratin on steroids). Instead of an actual piecrust, it has a rich crispy layer of pungent Reblochon.
"The trickiest part is having the perfect diameter pot so that when the cheese bubbles (due to the heat), the cheese crust will stay intact," says Ihsan Gurdal, owner of Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, MA. The ideal diameter fluctuates depending on the recipe. Make sure to follow the directions carefully for the recipe you choose – it'll indicate the proper dimensions of the gratin dish. That said, a 10 inch oval stoneware gratin dish generally works perfectly for a smaller Tartiflette (for about two to four people).
Besides the pan for the Tartiflette, the other more crucial item is the cheese – Reblochon. "Traditionally, Tartiflette was a cheese gratin consisting of lower quality cheeses that didn't taste as good eaten raw," says Frédéric Royer fromager and owner of France's renowned Boujon cheese shop in Thonon, France. In other words, when making the dish, one would choose an inferior Reblochon over a superior (more artisanal) one. The idea is that the better the cheese the more worthy it is of being eaten on its own -- uncooked. For instance, one might decide to use cheeses that are past their prime (making it a great dish for getting rid of old cheeses that are sitting in the back of your fridge.) . "That said, a high quality Reblochon makes a delicious Tartiflette," says Royer.
Unfortunately, Reblochon is nearly impossible to find in the U.S., because it falls into a category of cheeses that are not allowed to be imported into the U.S. -- raw milk cheeses aged for less than 60 days. So, we asked Gurdal, our stateside Tartiflette expert and fromager, what he recommends instead.
"I suggest the following Corsican cheeses that come from Fromagerie Pierucci: A Cascinca, U bel Paese, and U bel fiuruti," says Gurdal. "The cheesemaker himself bakes these cheeses in clay pots." All three cheeses can be purchased from Formaggio Kitchen. If you can't get a hold of those cheeses, try Bel Paese or Taleggio, both Italian cow's milk cheeses that can be found at specialty food stores coast-to-coast, like Whole Foods. Like Reblochon, these Italian cheeses are semi-soft with a buttery consistency making them ideal for melting. And, similar to Reblochon, Taleggio's rind is washed in salt water during the aging process, giving it an extra funky smell not unlike Reblochon's strong aroma.
Tartiflette is a cheese gratin magnified and intensified to such a degree that it is impossible to serve as a side dish, which means you'll want to choose lighter foods, like a simple green salad, as accompaniments, to offset the heavy creaminess. "As far as drinks are concerned, Tartiflette goes well with light dry white wine, like the Abyme wines from the Haute-Savoie," says Gurdal. And, for those looking for an Italian (and extremely stinky!) take on Tartiflette with Taleggio, check out food writer Lucas Hollweg's rendition.
Either way, when entertaining, Tartiflette's mere presence will not only change the smell of your home, but it will also create a sense of warmth and satisfaction in your guests' bellies that will transfer over to the general social ambiance. And to prevent the opposite effects, make sure those guests not only love cheese but are also not lactose intolerant. After all, as Royer puts it, "Cheese is about pleasure!"