Raclette and Cheese Fondue are both delicious cheese meals of Swiss-Gallic origin, perfect winter and especially nice for the holiday season. Apparently, there's some debate which is better than the other...
According to the late French food writer, Robert Courtine, Raclette is a dish that « le gourmet préfère de loin aux fondues » — "a dish that a gourmet prefers by far compared to fondues, better than the typical fondue, which is cheese melted in white wine and often served only with bread"*. A well-known gastronome, especially in the area of French cheeses, Courtine is saying that Raclette is better than Fondue.
Cheese fondue, a conglomeration of Emmental and Gruyere, has a wonderful yet subtle creamy, nutty alcohol-infused flavor which makes a tasty appetizer. I say appetizer because it's often eaten with cubes of hearty German brown bread or French baguettes with some sides, pickled onions or baby gherkins, and perhaps some charcuterie (cured meats) as well. This dish is on the mild side of wild, with low-key monotone textures and flavors brought through the bread and the cheese mixture.
La Raclette has similar ingredients, but with the addition of some small, immature potatoes becomes a heartier meal. The raclette cheese itself has a distinctly rich, mature flavor (some say stinky ;)-- and a creamy and gooey texture. The dish's simplicity yet complexity of flavor when combined with the potatoes, sour pickles, salted meats lends itself to a very satisfying meal indeed.
With Raclette, you make a plate of food then pour the melted decadence on top on your own plate; with Fondue, you take your bread, dip it in the cheese fondue and immediately consume-- you never really see the food on your plate! I don't know about you, but for me, there's something psychologically more satisfying about having your own plate of food.
Another thing I like about Raclette is that you know exactly what you're eating-- plain potatoes, cured meats, pickles and cheese... that's it! There's something so proletarian about these ingredients, yet when put together, magically changes into a meal fit for a king. In fondue the centerpiece is the expensive blend of cheeses, with an additive of a thickener like cornstarch giving off a more sophisticated air at first... but leaving you feeling a pauper because your plate always seems empty!
For me, I prefer Raclette over Fondue... but if I'm offered either you won't see me complain!
* excellent translation by Ken Broadhurst-- check out his great blog!