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A Taste Of the Alps, One Scrape At a Time

By Joe Yonan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 27, 2006

There were no white-capped peaks outside, no softly falling snow. None of the dozen guests, as far as could be determined, had come from a day on the Alpine slopes. None had just spent long hours herding cows on the mountainside.

On a mid-December night in Georgetown, a good 4,000 miles west of Switzerland's Valais region, though, they all displayed signs of appetites worthy of modern-day ski guides or 19th-century farmers. Especially once the cut surface of the half-wheel of raclette cheese, the cheese that gives this Swiss national dish its name, started bubbling under the heat of an infrared lamp.

Its nutty, sharp aroma warmed the air. "The smell, it's unbelievable!" cried out wide-eyed guest Irene Denning of Northwest Washington.

By the time host Toby Barbey first tilted the seven-pound crescent of cheese to one side, then used his narrow cleaver to scrape the gooey top layer onto Christophe Gissinger's plate, the anticipation had been building. At least one folk song had already been sung, an appetizer of mushrooms and puff pastry had already been consumed, and three or four toasts' worth of Fendant, a crisp white wine, had already been swigged before Barbey even turned on the contraption.

Gissinger, who lives in Great Falls, was lucky enough to be seated first in the receiving order, and when he got his plate back, the table let out a cheer. The fingerling potatoes were still boiling, so the traditional raclette accompaniments weren't all lined up yet. But no matter. Gissinger scooped a few forkfuls of the requisite bresaola (in Switzerland, it would be bundnerfleisch) and a smattering of cornichons and small pickled onions onto his plate. Then he ignored them completely and took a first bite of cheese -- all cheese.

And so it went when Swiss-born physicians Toby Barbey and Charlotte Barbey-Morel, both 55, showed some neophytes and some veterans their version of raclette, one of Switzerland's two oozing contributions to global cheese culture. The other, of course, is fondue, more popular in the United States but not necessarily preferred by the Barbeys and their "Swiss and quasi-Swiss friends," as Toby referred to them.

Raclette (from the French verb racler, meaning to scrape) and fondue have something in common besides cheese: They are natural crowd-pleasers -- party food. Raclette, born in the Valais canton and common in the ski resorts of the Alps, "is the most convivial thing," said Adelaide Barbey, a Barbey family cousin and Gissinger's wife. "Old people, young people, everybody, when you say we are going to have raclette, they go, 'Ah!' It's very festive."

It also requires a bit of patience, especially when done this way. The most traditional method would be over a wood fire, but this low-tech, foot-high combination of sliding vise grip and infrared lamp is a close second. "Less ambitious" people, Toby said, buy sets with little trays that melt individual slices of cheese. That route would be a little easier on the host ("I'm not the chef, I'm just a scraper," he said), who's on his feet for most of the night. And perhaps even easier on the guests, who must wait their turn as the portions are melted to order, one at a time, and passed around the table. But the pace also facilitates some hunger-fueled humor.

One of the plates, for example, made it to its destination a little lighter on cheese than when Toby first sent it on its way. That prompted Maximilian Ullmann of Washington to point across the table at Tom Donnelly of Bethesda and shout: "He picked! He picked in transit!" Then he turned to the journalist in the room: "Write it! Write it!"

Ullmann, who owns a defense consulting firm, then brandished his BlackBerry to proudly show a photo of his wife, Elisabetta, an Italian interpreter, in conversation with none other than George W. Bush, Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Jacques Chirac.

After a couple of rounds, the half-wheel was shrinking. Toby, who had worked up a sweat, was spending just as much time trying to keep the wheel's sides tidy from all the cheese spillage (and stealing occasional samples) as he was scraping for the guests and pouring more Robert Gillard Les Murettes Fendant 2005. Made from the chasselas grape, the Valais wine, which he had special-ordered at Ace Beverage in Foxhall Square, was the perfect foil for the cheese, cutting through the fat with its strong mineral taste and even a little effervescence.

The farther into the wheel Toby got, the more deliciously crusted bits of rind were included in the passed portions. And that made Adelaide, who prefers her raclette almost burnt, particularly giddy with satisfaction.

The group made it through only a third round before guests started crying uncle. That paled in comparison with Toby's tales of mountain guides in ski resorts rumored to go as many as 25 or 30 rounds before stopping. But Swiss restaurants typically charge a flat fee for as much raclette as a table can consume, so why not get your money's worth? Here in the Barbeys' dining room, the raclette was on the house, and Gissinger, a skilled semi-professional chef ("I do things that some people like enough to pay me for them, but it's not really a business," he said), had provided more than just the mushroom appetizer.

"The difference is that we have two or three different desserts coming. Normally, you eat raclette until you are ready to explode," Toby said, then added in a tone that sounded vaguely threatening: "We can still do that."

No go. So Gissinger started sending out more plates from the kitchen: meringues with berries, pain perdu and macaroons to give the Laduree tea room in Paris a serious run for its money. Toby, a cardiologist and chemical pharmacologist who now works for a contract research organization, finally got to sit. Ever the host, he started pouring dessert wines from his 2,500-plus-bottle cellar: a Domaine Rolet Pere et Fils Vin de Paille 2000 and a beautiful Mas Amiel Maury Vintage Reserve 2001.

By 11 p.m., guest Steve Denning's eyes were drooping, and Michel Pommier of Washington was padding over to the couch, fluffing a pillow and stretching out.

Charlotte, chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at Georgetown University Hospital, seemed as if she could keep eating and talking all night: about soccer, about the war in Iraq, about her and Toby's grown children, Zoe and Julien, whom they had recently visited for Thanksgiving in New York City.

They didn't roast a bird. "I don't think we ever had turkey for Thanksgiving," Charlotte said. "We put the heat lamp in the car and drove it up. We had raclette."

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