During a lifetime there are a lot of memorable ‘firsts’: first dance, first date or first kiss for example. When you are in a new environment the ‘firsts’ are multiplied by a factor of about 100.
Switzerland is famous for a lot of things, cheese being one of them. Cheese Fondue is not only a winter meal, it’s a social event and well worth remembering your ‘first’. Fondue is French and means ‘melted’. There are many types of fondues (cheese, chocolate, bourguignonne, fish) but when the Swiss talk about fondue 9 out of 10 times they mean cheese fondue.
My ‘first’ fondue was with Ben and in the mountains, Saanen in the Bernese Alps, to be exact. He was there with his school class on a weeklong ski-excursion (most school classes do that every year here, how else do you think they can keep coming up with champion skiers?). I travelled to Saanen one evening by train, he had the evening off and we went out to dinner. The train ride had made me thirsty and after Ben ordered the fondue I added to the waiter that I’d like to have a Coke. I think there was one of those big ‘movie moments’ where the whole place goes quiet, everyone stops talking and eating, babies stop crying, there is no clattering in the kitchen there is no movement in the whole place just stunned silence while everyone is watching and waiting to see what happens next.
The waiter took a deep breath, gathered all his waiter integrity and said ‘We don’t serve Coke with fondue’.
‘No, no, you don’t understand, I’m thirsty, I want something to drink’.
‘Coke does not mix with fondue’.
‘I will drink it before the fondue comes, I’m so thirsty’.
‘I will bring you a hot tea then’. End of discussion, with that he was off. Everyone in the restaurant collectively let out an audible sigh of relief and went back to talking and eating. Win a few, lose a few. The evening was otherwise perfect and that was the beginning of a long, long love affair. At some point in the evening I was able to quench my thirst, but not with Coke. Things may go better with Coca-Cola but fondue doesn’t seem to be one of them.
We have since had many, many fondues. They are made with Swiss precision from beginning to end. For a traditional, no frills fondue you start the preparation by cutting the bread in bite-sized pieces; not too big, not too small, just right. They shouldn’t be too soft or squishy either. Then you rub garlic into the special (usually ceramic) pot, pour the wine in and warm it up (usually a Fendant which is a white wine) add all the different grated cheese at once and then slowly and methodically stir an ‘8’ until it has melted. Always crossing in the middle to make sure it doesn’t stick. Mix the starch (so the cheese won’t separate) and kirsch together and add that along with the different spices.
The meal itself is a social event with everyone dipping the bread they stuck on the end of a special fork and stirring it in the pan of cheese. No one is ever worried about the germs that might get in the fondue from double dipping, I’m not sure why, the heat probably kills them. It is deeply frowned upon to scrape the bottom of the pan to pull up any cheese that has formed a crust on the bottom while there is still fondue in the pan. That’s considered a no-no because it is a delicacy and saved for the end after the rest of the cheese has been eaten. To drink you have hot tea which helps keep the cheese in your tummy from clumping up (something you don’t want to happen) along with the rest of the Fendant and kirsch. I’ve found the best way to drink the kirsch is to drink it in one fail swoop, bottoms up style, it burns a little going down and you might spit a bit of fire but warms you up immediately after. It’s said that it helps the digestion of the cheese. Someone should always have a piece of bread in the fondue stirring it so it stays creamy. If the bread falls off of anyone’s fork while in the fondue a price has to be paid. If it was a man whose bread got lost then he would have to buy a bottle of wine and if it was a women, she would have to give a kiss to all the men at the table. Dessert is usually fruit salad and never anything heavy like chocolate-anything (sad, but true).
Clean-up is also important. Even when you finish the fondue completely there is always some cheese left in the pan. DO NOT try to wash it with hot water and a sponge, it doesn’t work and it only makes a huge, gooey mess, I know because I tried to do that. ONCE. The right way to do it is to fill the pot with COLD water so the cheese will turn soft but not melt and you can then scrape it out. Afterwards you wash the pot using cold water. Once all the cheese has been removed completely you can wash it again normally.
Like I said, this is a seasonal meal and Swiss don’t normally eat this in the summer (tourists and people who really like fondue, however, do). Ben likes to tease me and refers to my fondue season as starting on September 1st and ending on August 31st. He could very well be right about that.
Below is a tradition recipe, there are many variations on this, actually every region has ‘their’ fondue. Using potatoes instead of bread for example or varying the cheese or liquid that is used and to which ratio. Sometimes even things like mushrooms are added.
MY favorite is Moitié-Moitié (which means half-half – half Gruyère cheese, half Vacherin cheese) a smooth and mild fondue. No wait, MY favorite is fondue made with champagne, it’s bubbly and light. No, MY favorite is a spicy fondue with cumin. No, no, I was mistaken, MY favorite is… well, I guess you get the idea.
Traditional Recipe (for 4 servings)
1 (or more) cloves of garlic
3 ½ dl Fendant (white wine)
4 tsp. cornstarch
200 g grated aged Gruyère cheese
200 g grated aged Emmentaler (this would be ‘Swiss Cheese’)
200 g grated Appenzeller Cheese
200 g Freiburger Vacherin
pepper and nutmeg to taste
600 – 800 g bread cubes