Can you fondue?
As a kid growing up in chilly New England winters, fondue was a special treat for every first snow. If you’re a cheese lover, there’s not much better than a bowl of piping hot fondue shared with friends to warm you up during the winter months.
The term “fondue” comes from the French word “fondre” which means “to melt,” and though today we think of fondue as anything from chocolate to beef broth in a hot pot, for the Swiss, there’s no other fondue but cheese, with sturdy crusty bread for dipping.
Where does fondue come from?
Though you might find fondue as an après-ski snack now in the Alps (and across the U.S.), it originated as a peasant dish in the Swiss canton of Valais, a French canton known for its wine, cheese and gorgeous mountains.
According to the BBC, fondue appears in cookbooks as early as the late 17th century. Though theories vary on the origins, fondue started mainly as a way for peasants to use winter ingredients as they aged: Cheese, wine and bread.
In 1930, the Swiss Cheese Union declared fondue as the official national dish of Switzerland as part of a nationwide campaign to increase cheese consumption. The Swiss Cheese Union, a cartel of cheese makers, set the price of milk, limited production and restricted the types of cheeses Swiss producers could make—and though the union collapsed at the end of the 1990s, fondue as a national dish was here to stay.
But what sparked the 70s trend we know and love in America The 1964 New York World’s Fair was the first time Americans came in contact with fondue—and Swiss culture in general —kicking off a food fad across the country and creating the first chocolate fondue, an invention only an American sweet tooth could devise.
Quickly becoming a dinner party staple, home fondue sets took off. While it’s faded from the dinner party repertoire, it’s actually quite easy to prepare, especially in the cold winter months. It’s time to dig up that dusty fondue pot in your mother’s pantry and have yourself some fondue.
Cheese on Cheese on Cheese
Photo by Vasile Cotovanu, CC BY 2.0
Traditional Swiss fondue isn’t just one type of melted cheese served in a pot—the most commonly served variety, the moitié-moitié (half-and half), combines at least two types of grated cheese, generally Gruyère (Switzerland’s famously stinky, nutty hard cheese) or Emmentaler (what you’re picturing when you hear “Swiss cheese.”) It might also use Vacherin, a firm but creamy cheese not unlike Italian fontina.
Combine that cheesy goodness with a hint of garlic and the not-so-secret ingredients: A dry, slightly sour white wine like a Savingnon Blanc and a splash of kirsch, a cherry brandy.
Traditions and Customs
In Switzerland, fondue is the main attraction—though you may be able to order a side of Rösti, similar to hash browns, if you’re feeling up to the challenge. Pair the dish only with more wine or tea to prevent indigestion. As for food for dipping, crusty bread rules the day, but it may also be served with potatoes, cornichon and pearl onions, depending on the restaurant.
Since fondue is a group activity, the Swiss have developed a few hijinks over the years. If you lose your bread in the fondue, it’s considered bad form, and depending on the mischievous nature of the group, you’ll be assigned a bet—for my first fondue, when I fumbled my bread dipping, I had to bestow kisses to everyone at the table!
The most important part of eating fondue though, is getting to the very bottom. As you work your way through the dish, the cheese gets thicker and thicker, until finally you can scrape the yummiest part of the fondue off the bottom of the pot. Now you’ve experienced true cheese-induced nirvana, fondue style.