Is there literally anything more enticing than a pot of warm, boozy, melted cheese, and a pile of crusty bread to dip into it? If there is, I sure haven’t found it yet.
One evening a little while ago, I made a pot of fondue for my fella and, like a witches’ potion, it made him fall just a little bit more in love. Not necessarily with me, just to clarify, but with cheese. And I’m okay with that. Fondue is also on my ever-expanding list of things to cook for my girl friends, although I can’t help but think at least one of them will end up with her face stuck in the pot, à la Winnie the Pooh.
With that hilarious mental image, let’s dip into the past (geddit?) The word fondue comes from the French “fondre,” to melt. The first appearance of a recipe for fondue is found in a Swiss book from 1699 called “Käss mit Wein zu Kochen,” (literally, “cooking cheese with wine”) although back then the dish included eggs. Fondue’s earliest carnation may in fact have been much earlier than that: all the way back in the eighth century BC, Book XI of The Iliad mentions a mixture of wine, grated goats’ cheese and flour, served in a golden goblet.
“Temper’d in this, the nymph of form divine
Pours a large portion of the Pramnian wine;
With goat’s-milk cheese a flavourous taste bestows,
And last with flour the smiling surface strows:
This for the wounded prince the dame prepares,” Wounds or no wounds, that’s got to be one happy prince.
Fondue as we know it today originated in Switzerland during the 18th century, and the first known recipe was published later in 1875. Like so many of our favourite foods, including cheese itself, fondue began as a simple means of food preservation. During the cold winters, many families depended heavily upon the cheeses and breads made during the summer months; as the winter progressed, however, both foods would become increasingly stale, rendering them hard and difficult to eat. Locals found that if they melted the cheese over the fire, and added wine and garlic, it made a perfectly gooey dip for their stale bread; the bread would soften when dipped in the cheese, rendering it far easier to eat without the danger of cracking a tooth.
With the later invention of the refrigerator, fondue-eating stopped being a necessity, but cosying up by the fire with a pot of melted cheese was so damn good that it became Swiss tradition. Fondue had its heyday of coolness later on in the ‘70s, joining martini-glass prawn cocktails, lava lamps, Black Forest gateaux and bell bottom jeans on my list of ‘70s things that I wish were still super-cool, but are not.
The majority of Swiss-style fondues are based on a combination of two cheeses, often Gruyère and Emmenthal, creating a perfect balance between sharp and mild. Most recipes call for the cheeses to be melted with dry white wine, and it’s true that adding some sort of alcohol is necessary in order to keep the cheese from curdling as it melts. (Oh nooo, I guess I’ll just have to go buy some wine.) I’d stick with the wine myself, but kirsch (cherry brandy) is very traditional, and I also fully intend to make a beer-based fondue someday. Likewise, adding either flour or cornflour helps the cheese to melt without separating. The garlic is there because… well, because garlic makes everything better, which incidentally is also why I tend to double the garlic in everything I make. (The downside of this is knowing that I never get any midnight visits from attractive vampires. The garlic is the only reason, though. Angel would definitely be here every night otherwise, okay? And I know I’m, like, sooo out of touch because there’s been a whole cloud of pop-culture vampires since Angel, but to be honest I’m not so into the lame sparkling thing. FYI, “cloud,” is the collective noun for bats: I haven’t lost my mind. What I have lost completely, though, is my train of thought. So yeah… fondue. FONDUE.)