Fondue is probably as old as melted cheese. In fact, its first cousin, raclette, is nothing more than that -- a dish in which the flat side of a half-wheel of cheese is held up to the fire (or a special raclette iron, which looks a little like an inside-out toaster). When the cheese melts, it is scraped onto a hot plate and eaten with boiled potatoes and pickles -- not a fancy dish, but hearty and satisfying if you have been shoveling snow behind the family chalet or skiing in a fancy resort all day. Fondue complicates matters a little by combining the cheese with the scents of wine, garlic, pepper, nutmeg, and Kirsch, a cherry brandy as common is Switzerland as Bourbon is in Kentucky. The cheese is melted along with some white wine and thickened slightly with a little cornstarch to keep it from separating.
A visit to most any kitchenware or department store (or even some hardware stores) will yield the right equipment for fondue. First you need a caquelon, or fondue pot. These are made of porcelain, earthenware or enameled iron. The latter is my choice because it won't crack over a gas flame. The next piece of equipment is the rechaud, or table-top burner. These are heated by a small burner fueled by denatured alcohol or a paste fuel under the pot. The type of heater to avoid is one that holds only a votive candle -- which is not hot enough to keep the fondue bubbling at a high enough temperature.
Cheese: Real Swiss Gruyere (no or tiny holes) and Emmentaler (big holes -- typical "Swiss cheese") are the fondue cheeses. Some people like to use equal parts, others like 2 parts Gruyere to one part Emmental. Other mixtures include some Vacherin Fribourgeois or another aromatic cheese.
Wine: A dry Swiss white wine such a Fendant du Valais is perfect, but any dry white wine will do. When I can, I save the bottom of a bottle of Champagne for fondue. I always add a teaspoonful or two of lemon juice along with the wine because a higher level of acidity helps to prevent the cheese from becoming stringy. The lemon flavor does not harm the fondue.
Kirsch: Real Swiss Kirsch isn't easy to find all over, but an imported one is better than a domestic brand.
Bread: A good, crusty French or Italian loaf is great. The Swiss use a heavier peasant bread not readily available here.
From a mechanical standpoint, the right way to eat fondue also helps it to stay smooth and to develop a good crust in the bottom of the pot, scraped off and enjoyed after the fondue is finished. When you spear a piece of bread on your fork, lower it into the bubbling fondue and stir around a few times, making sure to scrape the bottom of the pot while doing so. After the fondue is finished there is a golden, toasted skin of slightly and deliciously charred cheese on the bottom. It's known as "'s boedeli" or the "little bottom" and is the reward of careful fondue eaters.
To spice things up a bit, some Swiss like to grind a little pepper on the bread cube before lowering it into the fondue, for a little extra bite.
What to Drink?
Nowadays almost everyone drinks the same white wine used to make the fondue, rigorously frowned upon in the past. Swiss purists will have a little nip or two of Kirsch while eating fondue, then a hot black tea, without milk or sugar, afterwards, and probably a few more nips of Kirsch.
Before and After
The classic appetizer in fondue restaurants in Switzerland is Buendnerfleisch, thinly sliced air-dried beef from the Grisons canton in the far Southeast of the country. We would be more likely to consider a salad a good choice. Afterwards, you'll probably be too full for dessert, but some good, crisp, tart apples or meltingly ripe pears to cut and eat out of hand make a perfect finish to a fondue meal.
Fondue Neuchateloise: Classic Cheese Fondue
This quantity makes enough for about 4 people as a main course.
1 large clove garlic, peeled and halved
1 1/4 cups dry white wine
2 teaspoons strained lemon juice
1 1/4 pounds total (about 5 cups) coarsely grated Gruyere and Emmentaler cheeses,
in equal quantities, or 12 ounces Gruyere and 8 ounces Emmentaler
3 tablespoons best Kirsch
1 tablespoon cornstarch
Freshly ground pepper and nutmeg
1-inch cubes of good crusty bread for dipping
- Before beginning to make the fondue, make sure the tabletop heat source is ready and functioning. Set the heater in the center of the table and turn on or light it.
- Rub the inside of the fondue pot thoroughly with the garlic. Some people like to leave one piece of garlic in the pot.
- Add the wine, lemon juice, and a handful of the cheese and place the pot over low heat. Stir gently but constantly so that the cheese melts evenly as the wine heats. Continue adding the cheese a handful at a time, until it is all used up.
- While the cheese is melting, mix the cornstarch with the Kirsch.
- As soon as the wine and cheese mixture begins to boil gently, add the Kirsch and cornstarch in a stream and continue stirring constantly for a minute more, or until the fondue is bubbling gently. Add the pepper and nutmeg, just a big pinch of each.
- Transfer the pan to the tabletop heater and adjust the temperature so that the fondue continues to bubble gently.
- After the fondue is finished, turn off the heat source and let the pan cool for a few minutes then use a metal spatula such as a pancake turner, to scrape away the slightly browned cheese in the bottom of the pan. This is passed around as finger food to be enjoyed by the guests.