I love cheese and cheese loves me. We’re good together. Much as I love our relationship, it can get a little complacent. How many wedges of brie was that last week? I lost count after Wednesday. I need something heartier as the cold weather sets in. I need comfort cheese. I need – fondue!
Meltingly gooey fondue does something to me that a rich, buttery, brie simply can’t. It warms my soul. Then there’s the action of plunging a cube of hearty bread into the pot to see how much cheese can stick to it without losing it from my spear. Oh, I long to be that cube of bread.
Fondue has never been more hip.
But the origin of the dish was actually created out of necessity. The brisk winters in the small villages of Switzerland left its people scrounging for nourishment. Too far from larger towns where fresh food was abundant, villagers relied on cheese and bread made during the summer months for their meals. But, the wheels of cheese had turned hard and impossible to eat and the bread had become stale.
Out of curiosity (and more likely boredom), one of the villagers held a piece of cheese over the fire. As the cheese began to glistened, it slowly softened and dripped in a long, oozing string on to the fire. He tasted it and discovered that it was more palatable to eat this way. The news traveled fast and soon the entire village gathered around to watch; each villager waiting his turn to slurp up the runny cheese with a hunk of stale bread. The communal event soon became ritual and a cast-iron pot, called a “caquelon” was designed to contain the melted cheese and long forks were used to dip the chunks of bread.
If it weren’t for the ingenuity of these alpine villagers I wouldn’t have the collection of caquelons or fondue pots I have today.
It’s been nearly a year since I’ve made cheese fondue but I can always tell when it’s time: the air is brisk, the fireplace is lit at night and exactly sixteen months have gone by since the alpine cows have been milked to make these wonderful cheeses I crave right now.
Traditional Swiss fondue combines two cheeses, Emmental [EM-awn-TAHL] and Gruyère [groo-YEHR], and blends their distinct fruity and nutty flavors to make a creamy concoction. Either one alone just doesn’t work.
Emmental is made from partially skimmed, unpasteurized cow’s milk.
As most alpine cheeses, the wheels are very large, weighing in at up to 220 pounds each. Be wary of imposters made from non-alpine pasteurized milk; you’ll know the real deal because the rind will be stamped with the word “Switzerland”. Fresh Emmental has a smooth, beige rind and the characteristic large eyes or holes in the paste the size of quarters. Its flavor is sweet, buttery, nutty and fruity with a smooth mouthfeel that coats the palate.
Gruyère is Switzerland’s gift to cheese aficionados worldwide.
Few cheeses can transport you to their origin but a well-aged Gruyère can make you feel as if you’re standing in the middle of the alpine flora. Made from unpasteurized cow’s milk, the best Gruyères reach their full potential when aged for at least 16 months. Absent of the Swiss cheese holes, the creamy, beige interior has an assertive flavor with hints of fruit and nuts. It’s everything Emmental isn’t and wishes it were.
So, how do you combine these two cheeses and create a hip fondue party that has everyone moaning for more? The recipe below is a good starting point, but there are thousands of recipes that have since been created.
Traditional Swiss Cheese Fondue
1 clove garlic
1 cup dry white wine
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
½ lb grated Gruyère cheese (rind removed)
1/2 lb grated Emmental cheese (rind removed)
3 ½ teaspoons cornstarch (this keeps the cheeses from separating while cooking)
1 tablespoon Kirsh (optional, a cherry-flavored liquor available at most liquor stores)
pepper and nutmeg to taste
- Rub the inside of a medium saucepan with the peeled garlic clove. Discard the garlic. Add the wine and lemon juice and bring to a simmer over medium heat.
- In a medium bowl, mix the Gruyere and Emmental cheese with the cornstarch and toss to coat evenly. Stir the cheese mixture into the saucepan one cup at a time. Be sure cheese is completely melted, using a figure 8 motion with your spoon, before adding another cup. The fondue can bubble a bit, but don’t let it boil or else it may separate and you will have to start over. Season the fondue with nutmeg and pepper. Stir in kirsch (optional).
- Transfer to a cheese fondue pot and keep warm with tea candle or burner. Call your guests to the table and serve right away.
Fondue Rules of Etiquette
Having been around now for several hundreds of years, many “rules of etiquette” have been created to keep the ritual of preparing and serving fondue sacred:
- Don’t use cheap wine. The best fondue is made with a good drinking wine. Use a Sauvignon Blanc, California Riesling, or Chenin Blanc.
- Do not mix water into fondue to thin it out. If the fondue is too thick, add more dry white wine. If it is too thin, more cornstarch and cheese. Keep the heat as low as possible so the cheese doesn’t become a rubbery blob.
- If you need to double a fondue recipe, make it twice. These recipes do not double very well.
- Usually more than 6 people around one fondue pot is a call for disaster. Ok, try it and you’ll see.
- The hard crust left at the bottom of the pot is called “la courte” or “la religuese”, and is considered a delicacy. (I usually wait until guests are gone and eat it but go ahead and share.)
- Wondering what to drink with your fondue? The wine you used in the recipe should pair perfectly. But, if you want more of a full-bodied wine, try a Bordeaux, California Merlot, Chianti, or a Cabernet Sauvignon.
- There are many traditions (or rumors) of what happens if you lose your bread in the pot of fondue. Let’s just leave it at that.
- Finally, be considerate and don’t double dip your bread.
We’d love to know some of your very best stories of fondue parties. We know you have them so spill the beans below in the comment section.