The word 'raclette' comes from the French verb racler, meaning to scrape. It's an allusion to the way in which the melted cheese is scraped from the half-wheel once it's been held up to a heating apparatus.
Traditionally, the cheese would be held up to the fire to get it nice and melty. Today, most restaurants instead use a specialized heating apparatus that can support a half-wheel of cheese.
While the word raclette refers to a specific alpine cheese known for its melting ability, it's also the word used to refer to the traditional Swiss meal prepared with it – a meal that's far more than just melted cheese.
Diners first assemble ingredients onto which the cheese is to be scraped. This includes boiled potatoes, types of ham and bündnerfleisch, a Swiss cured meat made from beef. Small cornichon pickles and white onions complete the dish.
Semi-soft alpine cheeses similar to raclette, such as French Morbier or even Italian fontina, make a delicious substitute.
You can easily melt your raclette cheese in a regular nonstick frying pan. It might take a bit more time to serve everyone, but the results will be just as delicious.