Fondue, I Love You

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.)

Traditionally, fondue is made by melting the cheese over a flame in a heavy communal pot called a caquelon, but don’t worry. It works just as well on your stove with a saucepan. There are loads of supposed rules for eating fondue: one is not to stick the same fork in both the pot and your mouth, which I suppose is basic manners, but in my book the decision of whether to double-dip really depends on who you’re eating with. George Constanza would approve anyway, and in the end, isn’t that all really that matters? (No. No it is not.) There’s also some old tradition whereby men who lose a piece of bread in the pot must buy a round of drinks for the table, while any woman subject to the same fate must kiss the man to her left. Seeing as we live in the 21st century, I suggest ignoring this and making up your own rules.

The suggested way to dip your bread into the fondue is to move it in a slow figure of eight, so that your bread is thoroughly coated and the pot is stirred. Traditionally, the classic beverage to complement fondue is either white wine or black tea, although I have to say I think the tea would be a very strange choice. Wine all the way, baby – and sparkling wine would be even better, as the bubbles will help to cut through the richness of the meal.

If your fondue has gone according to plan, kept over a low heat with a lot of slow stirring, there should be a layer of hardened cheese encrusted on to the bottom of the pot. This is called la religiuese in French, meaning “the nun,” and grossmütter (grandmother) in some German-speaking areas, and it’s considered a real treat at the end of the pot. It’s certainly my favourite kind of nun. Use a knife to scrape it up and either divide it between everyone at the table, or prepare to fight to the death for it. I suppose if you were trying to impress someone, it might be considered romantic to offer la religieuse to him or her, but I’m really not very good at being selfless over cheese.

Each region in Switzerland has its own special recipe for fondue, using different cheeses, alcohols and herbs. The following is a recipe for Fondue Neuchâteloise, using Gruyère and Emmenthal.

Swiss Cheese Fondue

Serves four (or probably just three, if I’m there.) Grab these:

  • 2 cloves of garlic, one cut in half, the other peeled and minced
  • 320g Gruyère cheese, grated
  • 380g Emmental cheese, grated
  • 2 level tablespoons of cornflour
  • 75ml dry white wine
  • Small handful of chopped fresh parsley
  • As much crusty bread – preferably a day old – as you want for dipping. You could also try a mixture of veggies if you fancy trying to be healthy, although if you’re making this dish it’s probably not the best time to be thinking about calories or nutrition.

Now do this:

  1. Take your halved garlic clove and rub it all over the inside of a fondue pot or a small saucepan. Discard the remainder.
  2. Put your grated cheeses into a little plastic baggy, add the cornflour, seal the bag and shake it up baby.
  3. Pop the wine, minced garlic and parsley into the pot, and stir them together. Turn the heat on low, and stir while you add in your cheese and cornflour mixture bit by bit.
  4. Continue to stir regularly while the cheese melts, and keep the heat pretty low: you don’t want it to boil. When it’s all gooey and melty, and you find yourself beginning to drool, it’s time to eat. Serve the fondue immediately with the crusty bread (or whatever dipping foods you like) and prepare to fall just a little bit more in love… with cheese, just to clarify.

Are you as spellbound by melted cheese as I am? Got a special recipe, or maybe some fon-dos and fon-don’ts? Any thoughts on Seinfeld, vampires, or weird collective nouns? Leave a comment below!

Featured image via ShutterStock; additional images (1, 2) also courtesy of ShutterStock