When I visited Switzerland for the first time, our kind and hospitable hosts treated us to a meal of real Swiss fondue. Now, I have never been very enthusiastic about fondue. It has always seemed gimmicky and outdated (olive green fondue pots, strawberries dipped in chocolate...). But the real thing — ah, it won me over. Here's a little peek at one of the most wonderful meals I've ever had.
The table set, with steaming glasses of tea.
This fondue meal was both rich and simple. It was put together by our hosts, who bought the cheese on one of our outings to the Emmental region (we were staying in Bern). We stopped in a small cheese shop and bought a packet of pre-shredded fondue cheese. My hostess told me that the wine and the Kirsch were already included in this mix, so she didn't have to mix anything else in — just heat it up. She usually doesn't get this kind of cheese, though; she usually buys it whole from her own cheesemonger at the market. But they wanted to try something new this go-round.
When it was time to eat, the table was set with wineglasses, cordial glasses for Kirsch, and tea cups. Our hosts emphasized the importance of hot drinks with the fondue — it keeps the cheese from solidifying into a big lump in your stomach! We had small glasses of Kirsch (cherry brandy), as well as a light white wine, and some lemon verbena tea. (You can see why this is a meal ordinarily eaten only in the depths of winter! Everything conspires to warm you right to your toes.)
Our hostess warmed the cheese on the stove in an enameled pan, and then brought it to the table where we were waiting and ready. We each speared a piece of precisely-cut bread on a fondue fork, and dipped in.
We were very careful about spearing the bread — our hosts did inform us that if we lost a piece of bread in the cheese, we'd have to kiss one of them!
The cheese itself was hot and bubbling on the chafing dish stand — smooth and creamy. This particular batch of fondue cheese included Emmental cheese and a couple other regional specialties; my host was not completely sure what was included. (She usually uses a mix of Vacherin and Gruyère, which she says makes for a lighter fondue.)
Even though we were only eating bread and cheese for supper, we got full very quickly! It was so rich and savory, hot and chewy. We dipped the bread into the cheese, and twirled it for a moment above the pot, where the cheese hardened just slightly, just enough to bring it to our mouths without dripping.
Like its cousins shabu shabu, hotpot, and steamboat, fondue is a meal made for lingering at the table, eating slowly, and making conversation as the light dims. It's filling and simple, and so warm. By the time that every scrap of bread was eaten, and the last bits of caramelized cheese scraped from the pot, we were full to bursting and more than a little tipsy from the plummy Kirsch. Eating fondue that night let us experience Swiss hospitality at its finest, and the savor and the warmth of the cheese and the company have stayed with me still.
And yes, I now understand fondue and what all the fuss is about. It's elemental and simple, and yet so perfect a meal for a cold winter's night.
Related: Fondue: Tricks of the Trade - The Cheesemonger
(Images: Faith Durand)