In the last century Swiss food, a varied amalgam of French, German, Austrian, Italian, and many other international influences, has come to be best known for a single communally shared dish: fondue (recipe follows).
More Swiss dishes on The World Cup of Food:
- Cordon Bleu, ham-and-cheese stuffed cutlets (with Swiss cuisine overview)
- Kartoffel Rösti, fried potato cake
Fondue is typically associated with rustic mountain life, but its true origins are more cosmopolitan in nature. Swiss cheeses like Gruyère and Emmentaler were too valuable as export items and therefore too expensive for the mountain folk. Wine stirred into melted cheese was first noted among the French-speaking, lowland city-dwellers of western Switzerland in the late 1800s, where the dish was named after the French word fondre, “to melt.”
Fondue’s popularity spiked in the 1930s, when the Swiss Cheese Union (an organization with presumably sieve-like abilities to contain water or mount a defense) began to promote the gooey concoction as a national dish of Switzerland. Restaurants specializing in fondue have been present in the dish’s home country since its invention, and began to pop up in the United States around the time of the 1964 New York World’s Fair, where fondue was the featured menu item at the Swiss Pavilion’s restaurant. Fondue fever swept the country, and much like with the subsequent onion blossoms and molten chocolate cakes, the American household soon wanted easy fondue making at home, and industry was happy to oblige. Fondue sets were ubiquitous wedding gifts in the 1970s, to such an extent that the Smithsonian couldn’t function as an accurate snapshot of American society without an exhibit devoted to the little glorified chafing dishes. Fondue sets have, like any fad, since waned in popularity, but that didn’t stop us from asking for and receiving one in our wedding registry, which we were happy to break out for the first time for this feature.
Fondue was originally a term used only in reference to melted cheese dips, but today fondue can be enjoyed as a hot oil used to cook strips of meat (fondue bourguignonne) or as dessert with fruit or pastries as the dippers and melted chocolate as the dippee. The American spirit of innovation and poor taste has led to the grossest possible extension of the dessert fondue, the white chocolate fountain:
Cheese fondues go by many names, based on locality and choice of cheese or cheeses. Fondue Vaudois is made from Gruyère, fondue Jurassienne from Comté, and our choice, fondue Neuchâtel, from a 50/50 mixture of Gruyère and Emmentaler, to name a few. Crusty French breads are the dippers of choice, with firm fruits like apples or pears also used from time to time. We love apples and cheese together so were sure to include some in ours.
adapted from The Hungry Skier
SERVES 4 TO 6
- 1 clove garlic
- 1 cup plus 2 Tbs white wine (the choice of dry or sweet is up to the cook)
- 1 Tbs corn starch
- 1/2 pound Gruyère cheese, shredded
- 1/2 pound Emmentaler cheese, shredded
- pinch of ground nutmeg
First, we assembled our fondue set according to the instructions. Heat sources are usually either electric or, like ours, small canisters of portable heating fuel. In some cases fondue can be made entirely in the serving set’s heating vessel, but in ours it was recommended to cook the dish separately in a saucepan over the stovetop.
To begin, we rubbed a sliced half of the garlic clove over the inside surface of the pan, completely covering the inside with as much garlic juice as possible:
The one cup of wine and the nutmeg were added next, and brought to a simmer over medium-low heat:
Once simmering, the cheeses were added:
…then whisked constantly and vigorously until the cheese had meted, about a minute or so:
The wine and cheese had not yet combined into a smooth mixture, which is what the next step was meant to accomplish. In a small bowl, the remaining two tablespoons or so of wine and the corn starch were stirred until no lumps remained:
…and whisked into the cheese and wine mixture. After only a few seconds of stirring, our fondue had the uniform, thick consistency we desired:
The fondue was poured into the serving bowl of our set, the heat source ignited (Chris’s lightning-quick hands made this possible with a conventional pocket matchbook, but we recommend a barbecue lighter or those really long candle-lighting matches if you wish to avoid burning yourself), and the bread and apple pieces arranged in the serving bowls:
To eat, we speared a piece of either bread or fruit with the long forks included in the fondue set, used them to stir the fondue a bit, and enjoyed a cheese-coated chunk of delight:
We can see why fondue became such a popular party food. Of course, everyone likes melted cheese but most hosts would probably prefer to serve something like fondue that is perceived more favorably than alternatives like fried cheese sticks or nachos at their dinner parties (we are not most hosts, by the way). Most importantly, though, fondue creates interaction. Diners huddle around a communal pot, each patiently waiting a turn at the liquid gold inside, a situation that naturally creates conversation even among strangers. We had always considered fondue restaurants to be a bit kitsch for our tastes, but having made the glorious cheesy dipping sauce ourselves, we are much more open to the idea.