Tonight was the annual concert of my village’s brass band, L’Avenir. The brass band has two major concerts per year, in the spring and at Advent, and performs at events such as the 1er août and Désalpe. The band often has joint concerts with other bands in the region, both in Lignières and their homes, and competes in regional and national contests and has historically performed very well for a volunteer band from a village of around 1000 people.
The concerts turn out a substantial fraction of the village. I’m not skilled at estimating crowds, but this one pretty much filled up the school gymnasium where it was held, and I’d guess there were around 350 people there. I rarely miss a concert, but this was one where attendance was obligatoire, because I was to be made an honorary member of the band due to my support over the last quarter century. (If you knew how rudimentary my musical talent is, you’d appreciate what an honour this is.) I got a specially inscribed magnum of Neuchâtel Pinot Noir and applause from the crowd.
Let’s get to the music. Here are three of the pieces from the concert. These were recorded with my Canon S100 pocket camera (the same one that froze solid at the South Pole, but worked fine when it thawed out and continues to soldier on six years later), then converted with OpenShot to OGG (Theora/Vobis) format at 360 pixel resolution with medium quality video, but full CD-quality stereo audio, which is what matters. I’ll bet you can’t turn your computer speakers up high enough to be as loud as it was in person.
The repertoire is varied: lots of classic brass band material like marches, but also jazz, classical music like Grieg’s Peer Gynt suite and, as you’ll see and hear, movie music. Goutez!
As noted in an earlier post, on Sunday, 2018-11-25 Swiss citizens will vote on the contentious issue of whether to amend the federal constitution to prohibit the removal of horns from cows and goats. Also on the ballot will be the (French title) “Initiative pour l’autodétermination” (Self-determination Initiative).
This is also an initiative to amend the federal constitution, whose full text you can read [PDF] in French. The relevant language, with my translation interleaved, is as follows.
Le droit est la base et la limite de l’activité de l’Etat. La Constitution fédérale est la source suprême du droit de la Confédération suisse.
The law is the basis and limit of the activity of the State. The federal Constitution is the supreme source of the law of the Swiss Confederation.
La Confédération et les cantons respectent le droit international. La Constitution fédérale est placée au dessus du droit international et prime sur celui-ci, sous réserve des règles impératives du droit international.
The Confederation and the cantons respect international law. The federal Constitution is placed above international law and overrides it, subject to the mandatory rules of international law.
La Confédération et les cantons ne contractent aucune obligation de droit international qui soit en conflit avec la Constitution fédérale.
The Confederation and the cantons shall not contract any obligation of international law that would be in conflict with the Federal Constitution.
En cas de conflit d’obligations, ils veillent à ce que les obligations de droit international soient adaptées aux dispositions constitutionnelles, au besoin en dénonçant les traités internationaux concernés.
In the case of a conflict of obligations, they shall ensure that the obligations of international law are adapted to the constitutional provisions, if necessary by denouncing the international treaties concerned.
Le Tribunal fédéral et les autres autorités sont tenus d’appliquer les lois fédérales et les traités internationaux dont l’arrêté d’approbation a été sujet ou soumis au référendum.
The federal Tribunal and other authorities are obliged to apply federal laws and international treaties whose approval decree has been subject to or submitted to referendum.
A compter de leur acceptation par le peuple et les cantons, les art. 5, al. 1 et 4, 56a et 190 s’appliquent à toutes les dispositions actuelles et futures de la Constitution fédérale et à toutes les obligations de droit international actuelles et futures de la Confédération et des cantons.
From the time of their acceptance by the people and the cantons, art., al. 1 and 4, 56a and 190 will apply to all present and future provisions of the federal Constitution and all present and future international law obligations of the Confederation and the cantons.
Here is the official federal government page about the initiative (select language at top right). The federal parliament recommends a No vote, with 129 no and 68 aye in the lower house (Conseil national) and 38 no and 6 aye in the upper house (Conseil des États).
As this is a federal matter, I shall not have a vote in this (permanent residents can vote in elections at the commune and canton level [depending on the commune and canton’s rules] but only citizens can vote in federal elections), but you can probably guess where I come down on the matter. Essentially all of the political, media, and big business establishment is opposing the referendum and the way to bet is a broad-based defeat, but the Swiss electorate is unpredictable and doesn’t like to be pushed around, so you never know.
I will post the results in a comment when they become known on Sunday.
Raclette is a quintessentially Swiss dish whose origins date as far back as those of the country (a.d. 1291). Although cheese fondue is often considered the national dish of Switzerland, many Swiss consider Raclette more authentically Swiss, since fondue is equally popular in adjacent regions of France.
Raclette: The Cheese
The word “Raclette” refers both to the kind of cheese used in the dish and the dish prepared from it. Raclette cheese is traditionally made from raw grass-fed cow’s milk and is semi-hard (pâte mi-dure) with a relatively thin, edible, rind and few, if any, holes. It is aged only three to six months and has no blue inoculation. (Today, most raclette cheese made in Switzerland is produced from pasteurised milk, but in the canton of Valais, it must be made from raw milk to be called Valais Raclette.)
Non-traditional raclette cheese may have added flavouring such as garlic, sliced peppercorns, paprika (all seen commonly) and more exotic innovations such as onions, truffles, bits of bacon, and herbs. I’ve even tried raclette cheese made from goat’s milk, but it worked poorly.
Raclette cheese is usually produced in rounds whose size varies from one producer to another. A typical modern round is around 5.5 kg, and is often sold in half-rounds of around 2.7 kg. You can also buy square blocks cut from these rounds of around 500 g or slices from these slabs; we’ll see how these are used below.
What is common to all kinds of raclette cheese is that when heated, it melts into a creamy consistency without separating into fat and milk solids like some other cheeses. This makes it ideal for Raclette, the dish, which we’ll now examine.
Raclette: The Dish
Tradition has it that cow herders in the mountainous regions of Switzerland would, when moving their herds among Alpine pastures, carry with them, for their meals, a half round of raclette cheese and some potatoes or bread, all of which keep well without refrigeration. In the evening, after starting their campfire, they would bring the round up to the fire so its heat would begin to melt the exposed part of the half-round, then scrape the melting cheese onto slices of bread or potatoes which had been boiled over the campfire. Racler is the French verb “to scrape”, and the word “raclette” comes from scraping the melting cheese from the heated round.
Today, few people build a campfire to enjoy raclette (although, if you have one, why not?). Instead, some people and restaurants use an electric heater with a half-round of cheese or a block cut from one.
You rotate the cheese round under the heater, hold the plate below the lower end of the round, and scrape the melting cheese onto the plate with a knife. If you’re a purist, special knives are available, with one side for scraping and the other for cutting the rind for those who (being also purists) prefer it with their cheese. Between servings, rotate the cheese away from the heat so it doesn’t dribble (much) onto the platform below.
This is typically how raclette is prepared in restaurants or at festivals such as the Désalpe de Lignières. With today’s small families, a 2.7 kg half-round or even a 500 g block is a lot of cheese for one sitting, and the most popular way to serve raclette at home is with slices and a raclette/grill apparatus. That’s what we’ll use for the meal below.
Raclette: The Meal
Let’s make a raclette dinner. Here are the ingredients.
For one or two people, you’ll need around a kilogram of “new” potatoes. These are often sold in Switzerland as “Raclette” potatoes, but elsewhere choose small potatoes with a thin skin (which you cook and eat) that don’t disintegrate into mush when you slice or mash them after cooking. In French such potatoes are called «chair ferme»; I don’t know the phrase in English, but most new potatoes (as opposed to the big ones with thick skins for baking) are of this kind. Don’t peel them; we’ll cook and eat them with the skins on. The skin has much of the flavour and vitamins of the potato. If the potatoes are dirty, wash them. (New potatoes you buy in Switzerland are almost always washed, but if yours aren’t, scrub them under running cold water. “Don’t eat dirt—dilute—dilute!”)
Fill a saucepan with enough water to cover the potatoes (but don’t add them yet), add a bit of salt (or omit, if you wish), and bring to a boil. Once the water is boiling, add the potatoes (gently; you don’t want to splash the boiling water on the stove or yourself) and boil for 15 minutes or until you can push a fork into a potato without encountering a hard centre. Once the water comes up to a full boil after adding the potatoes, you can reduce the heat until it’s just boiling; once water is boiling, adding heat only makes the water boil away faster and doesn’t raise the temperature or cook the potatoes any quicker. (If you’re at seriously high altitude, you may have to increase the cooking time. I find 15 minutes works fine for anywhere from sea level to Fourmilab’s altitude of 800 metres.)
While the potatoes are boiling, set up the raclette/grill apparatus and the accessories. Usually, with a dinner for multiple guests, you’ll put it in the centre of the table. Connect to electricity, turn on, and set to the highest temperature initially to heat up to operating temperature (this takes a while—I usually turn on the grill about half way through boiling the potatoes). Make sure there is nothing flammable or prone to melting near the grill. Set out butter, salt and pepper, complements such as cornichons (small cucumber pickles) and pickled onions, and innovative condiments such as hot sauce, jalapenos, bacon salt, sour cream, and whatever else you fancy. Some people serve cold cuts such as ham or sausage with raclette, but I find that a bit much: cheese and potatoes are very filling all by themselves.
Once the timer for the potatoes goes “bing”, it’s time to eat! Turn off the heat on the potatoes, but leave them in the water; this will keep them warm during the meal in case people want second or third helpings. Invite diners to pick four or five potatoes from the pan onto their plates with kitchen tongs and take them to the table, where they can lightly mash them with butter, salt and pepper, and if utterly decadent, sour cream (you want to mash into pieces, not a uniform starchy continuum). Meanwhile, they’ll have chosen a slice of cheese from the variety you’ve set out (I usually provide an assortment of classic, pepper, garlic, and paprika), put it into a pan («coupelle») and placed it into the raclette/grill. With the grill up to temperature, it will only take around a minute for the cheese slice to melt to a creamy consistency. After you start the meal, you’ll probably want to reduce the grill temperature so the cheese doesn’t melt more quickly than a diner can finish the previous slice. Take some of the pickles and onions and enjoy their crunchy contrast with the melted cheese and potatoes. You can see the rind in the melted cheese in the picture below; this is how raclette is traditionally served.
Innovators may enjoy putting a spritz of hot sauce on top of the cheese before they put it into the grill, or topping it with a slice of tomato, onion, bits of bacon, or whatever comes to mind. Innovators…always making trouble!
Raclette is traditionally accompanied by light, fruity Swiss white wines such as Fendant, made from the Chasselas grape. Teetotalers usually choose tea with raclette. Conventional wisdom is that cold drinks such as water and diet toxic sludge may cause the cheese to harden into a bolus which can only be extracted by surgery or a plumber’s snake, but I know of no hard evidence for this. Consider yourself warned.
There is very little cleaning up after a meal of raclette, regardless of the number of people at the table. You’ll probably have potatoes left over. Pluck them from the now-cooling water and put them into a frigo container (the Fourmilab term of art is “white box”, as in “white box dinner”) and, after they come to room temperature, bung them into the frigo. Leftover cheese should be tightly wrapped in aluminium foil and refrigerated. It will have been inoculated with airborne nasties while on the table and will begin growing green hairy cruft after a week or so; be sure to use it before this happens. The pickles and onions can be returned to their jars and the condiments returned to the refrigerator; they’ll keep almost forever—they’re more patient than your appetite.
One little-appreciated property of raclette cheese is that however crusty it has become when heated, after a few minutes in warm water it softens and is easily wiped away. After you remove the potatoes from the cooling (but yet warm) water, throw in the cheese melting pans, scrapers, and utensils, wait about ten minutes, and with a quick swipe with the scrubber they’ll be ready to throw into the dish grinder, which will do the work Swiss people won’t.
The best thing to do with leftovers is encore raclette! Not the next day, but a day or two later, and maybe for lunch. Now, you don’t necessarily want to haul out the whole apparatus, so you might consider the Fourmilab innovation I call nuclette. Take a small bowl, place one or two leftover potatoes in it; mash lightly, add a little butter, place a slice of leftover raclette cheese on top, cover with a plate and place in the microwave. Nuke it for one or two minutes, et voilà, almost authentic raclette. Add salt and pepper, stir it up, and enjoy. Repeat if you remain peckish.
If you have entirely too many potatoes left over, consider making Fourmilab’s Can’t Fail Potato Salad from them—they’re already cooked, so it’s just a matter of minutes to prepare.
Ever since its inception, radio and television broadcasting in Switzerland has been supported by a tax on receivers, paid by every household, regardless of whether they actually watch or listen to the broadcasts and how much they consume. Over time, the funds collected through this fee, now billed through a semi-private company called Billag AG, have been used to subsidise private broadcasters, at the discretion of the federal authorities. These fees are substantial: the household fee for television and radio reception is currently CHF 451.10 (US$ 481.87 at today’s exchange rate).
In an environment where there are myriad sources of entertainment, none supported by these tax revenues, this has generated a push-back. Since Swiss radio and television consists largely of content from broadcasts from other countries a year or more after it is available on popular streaming services and local public affairs programming with a hard collectivist tilt from the studios in Zürich and Geneva, more and more people are asking, “Why am I paying more for this stuff that I never watch or listen to than a fancy flat-screen TV costs these days?”.
This being Switzerland, they can do more than mutter beneath their breath. It only takes 100,000 signatures in this country of around 8.5 million people to put a federal initiative on the ballot, and those initiatives, with few limits, can make fundamental changes to the federal constitution. On March 4th, 2018, Swiss citizens will vote on the No Billag initiative, which would, if adopted, abolish the tax on radio and television reception and the subsidies to broadcasters. (The Web site is available only in French, German, and Italian: click at the top right to select the language you best understand.) Here is the text of the initiative.
This has whacked the hornets’ nest of the media-ruling class complex close to where they live. The local throw-away newspaper ran a lurid front page illustration about how this would extinguish diversity in political discourse and other things so important to tax eaters. Just imagine if those rubes could listen and watch whatever they wanted without paying for the trash spewed by those paid by money taken from them without their consent. End of the world—I’m telling you!
I won’t get to vote on this one. It’s a federal initiative, and as a permanent resident of Switzerland but not a citizen, I can vote only in elections at the canton and commune level. All of the mainstream parties and media are united in defeating this initiative. They are using their taxpayer-funded channels to inveigh against it at every opportunity. We shall see what happens.