For years many foodies (even before there were “foodies”) thought of fondue, that classic dish of melted cheese for dipping, as gastronomically corny. This was especially so between 1975 and 1995, when fondue was so dated that the only fondue set most people had was the one in the attic leftover from their parents’ 1950s parties. For Alpine denizens, especially those of us who lived in Switzerland, fondue is simply one of the greatest preparations ever invented.
I literally grew up on fondue, and the recipe below, fondue Neuchâteloise, is based upon the one handed down from the time my mom and dad took us on vacation to Switzerland from our home in France in the 1950s. In 1954, Dad was a staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force stationed at Toul-Rossières Air Base near Nancy. Dad had a part-time job selling insurance for a Swiss company, which took him to Zurich several times a year on business. He was introduced to fondue, and from then on he became a devotee of this iconic Swiss preparation and the rituals of eating it.
In 1970 I lived in Basel, Switzerland, for a year. My friends and I made frequent trips to the Alpine villages where during the winter we always ate fondue in the chalets. One of the most spectacular fondues I ever had was in the snow abundant village of Sion in February 1971.
Fondue do’s and don’ts
Fondue is a typical meal of the vignerons, the vineyard workers in the Berneralpen, Switzerland. Fondue is always prepared with the help of guests, never beforehand. The guests are assigned various tasks such as cutting the bread, dicing the cheese, rubbing the caquelon (the ceramic fondue pot) with garlic and of course someone has to open and pour the wine, for conversation is helped along with a little wine.
As for the equipment needed, you must have a fondue set which consists of the caquelon, long two-pronged forks, small plates, a burner stand, and Sterno for fuel. The fondue pot is always made of ceramic. The metal fondue pots you may see are actually for beef fondue, the metal being more appropriate than ceramic for heating the frying oil.
Because everyone wants to eat, and it’s hard enough to get people to wait their turn and be able to reach the fondue pot without standing, the number of people at a one-pot fondue party should not be more than eight at a smallish table. The cheese that goes into a fondue Neuchâteloise is pretty much circumscribed, namely the ones called for below, although you will find different cheeses used in other cantons and in the French and Italian Alps.
The first guest, at home the guest of honor, and at a restaurant the eldest, skewers their piece of bread securely and dips it into the fondue, stirring in a figure-eight pattern and not a circle. They remove their fork from the fondue pot, twirl the fork to capture the cheese, and eat, being careful not to burn their lips on any hot metal. The process is repeated around the table, one at a time. Diners should never stick their fork into the fondue while someone else is doing so.
Besides the all-important commodious conversation, there are some rituals that fondue eaters should observe. If a man drops his bread into the fondue, he must fish it out and then lose his turn, or, if in a restaurant, buy the wine. If a woman drops hers she must kiss each man at the table, whether at home or at a restaurant. That was the part my father loved. All eating stops while the man or woman is doing this, but drinking may continue.
The right wine
After each round, namely after each of the six people (sometimes eight) have had a bite, everyone toasts the fondue itself with a shot of kirsch. This shot is about a large thimble full. Everyone toasts together and then continues.
The basic rule of thumb is 5 to 7 ounces of cheese, total, per person and ⅜ cup of white wine per person in the fondue itself.
Swiss Neuchâtel white wine is recommended. Other Swiss white wines that you can use are Fendant from Valais, the lake districts of Biel and Murten, or from the Zurich region, or wines from Lake Geneva (La Côte) such as Aigle, Dêzaley, or St. Saphorin.
A California sauterne could be used, but never a sweet wine. A slightly sour sparking white wine could also be used. Generally the wine should have a high acidity. Because Swiss wines are today very expensive and sometimes hard to find, chablis or riesling make the most sense if you can’t find the Swiss wines called for.
White wine should always be drunk with fondue because it assists in the digestion of all that cheese, which will otherwise congeal again uncomfortably in your stomach, so the saying goes. For people who don’t drink alcohol, a sparking apple cider is also good to drink and acts in the same way as the wine. Generally, the only thing served with a fondue is a simple green salad with vinaigrette.
- In a small bowl, mix the kirsch, ¼ cup wine, and corn starch until well blended.
- Rub the inside of the caquelon, the fondue pot, with the cut side of the garlic clove, rubbing all over. Put the cheeses in the pot with the nutmeg and pepper. Pour the white wine over the cheese and turn the heat to medium. Start to stir in a figure-eight motion, stirring constantly. Once the cheese has melted add the flour and kirsch mixture and stir until well blended.
- Light the Sterno in the table heater and transfer the caquelon to the table heater, keeping the cheese hot but under a boil. You may need to adjust the cover of the Sterno burner to control the heat. Start eating immediately being careful you don’t burn your mouth. The guest of honor eats first.
Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard / KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for “A Mediterranean Feast.” His latest book is “Hot & Cheesy” (Wiley) about cooking with cheese.