The closely guarded secrets
of the Bagnes Valley raclette
Bagnes Valley has two inseparable great loves: its hardy Hérens mountain cattle and the raclette cheese made from their milk.
A raclette is never a run-of-the-mill affair. It’s not something to be wolfed down quickly when you’re on the go, or thrown together for a make-do weekday supper. A raclette is always an occasion, an eagerly anticipated get-together that holds the promise of an enjoyable evening savouring a delicious Valais spread of dried meats (Hérens, obviously), cured ham and bacon, garlic or pepper flavoured dried sausage, potatoes, and the obligatory side dish of gherkins and pickled onions.
But what exactly is raclette, you may ask. Well, it’s a full-fat cheese (50%) with a semi-hard rind, which is traditionally made in the Alpine pastures during the summer, or at dairies in the valley between October-November and May-June (depending on the altitude of the summer pastures). Old documents show that Bagnes’ raclette cheese had already earned itself a reputation by the late Middle Ages.
Cheeses can only lay claim to the Appellation d’Origine Protégée classification which guarantees their bold character by following rigorous procedures throughout the production process: raw milk must be collected in an environmentally-friendly way (50 litres for a 7-kilo cheese wheel), transformed by an artisan cheese maker in copper vats and matured on redwood planks at 11°C for at least three months (and regularly turned), and only stored in Valais, not to mention routine quality controls. That’s what it takes to obtain one of the best melting cheeses in the world - creamy and flavoursome, floral and tangy in equal measure. Each dairy has its own number, which is stamped onto the cheese wheels; Bagnes 1 comes from Verbier, Bagnes 25 from Champsec, and Bagnes 30 from Lourtier…
Raclette cheese has its own equivalent of the Oscars: the annual Fromage et Cime tasting competition which is held in mid-September in Ovronnaz, in the nearby Rhone Valley. The most acclaimed winners (three times) include the particularly fervent cheese maker Carlos da Fonseca, a “Portuguese mountain dweller” as he describes himself, who runs the Lourtier dairy in the low season and spends the summer out on the pastures in Charmotane. He is passionate about his work – he owns Hérens cattle himself – and learnt the ropes from old Bagnes locals. The cheese competition takes place during La Désalpe when cattle are moved back down to the plains, and coincides with another event organised by Bagnes Agritourisme, the Bagnes Capital of Raclette festival which features cow fighting, a folk parade and, of course, tasting sessions.