Having been born fewer than three decades ago, I’ve always tended to think of fondue as an outdated fad. It is something that my parents’ generation enjoyed frequently but that nowadays is enjoyed as an occasional quirky and fun throwback to the 70s. It could be that this is true. And it could also just be my perception as I’d never personally experienced fondue until a few days ago. It was something that I heard happened now and again but which never intersected with my life until moving to Germany.
Ah, Germany (and other European countries in the vicinity), the land where fondue is still alive and well, though perhaps not as frequently enjoyed as at the peak of it’s heyday.
I finally got to experience fondue for the first time thanks to my friend, Heike. She’s an amazing woman of a quite interesting background, having been born to German parents in the French-speaking area of Switzerland. Because of her contact with these various cultures, she’s learned the ways of the fondue of the Swiss, of the German, and of the French. How very lucky of her! And she shared some of those traditions with me. How lucky of me!
The first and most important step is to have the right tools and the right ingredients. Heike brought over her fondue set which includes a ceramic pot, a stand which holds it above a disposable flame source, and fondue forks.
Since we had our meal on a Monday between the weekend and two holiday days, it was smack in the middle of plenty of busyness, so we used prepared fondue rather than a homemade mixture. It was delicious! And fondue is a slow, putzy meal, so I can appreciate that the prepared mixtures make it that much easier to enjoy.
You start your fondue on the stovetop to get the mixture hot and the cheeses melting, as this would take a half a day if you started it out over the small flame that is used just to hold it warm at the table later. On the stovetop, for a prepared fondue mix, start the heat out higher to get things going, and turn it down low when the cheese starts melting. Once the cheese starts melting, it will go quickly, thus it’s important to stir constantly in order to avoid burning. After it’s all melted, it can be placed over the small flame wherever you’re going to be eating it. If wanting to create your own homemade cheese mixture, see the recipe below for instructions.
If it’s too thick, thin it out by pouring in a smidgen of the white wine that should be accompanying your meal. Just a bit will go far, so pour and stir before adding more. It seems to me that it should be smooth enough to be able to swirl your skewered bread cubes without tearing them apart. But of course it should be thick enough to coat your bread in a nice, thick layer.
Traditions of Swiss Fondue:
- Bread and cheese, cheese and bread. Fondue is a custom from the Alps and other such mountainous areas where there were cows and cheese and that in abundant supply. Thus, with other foods less available, the most traditional food to dip is bread. No matter how you slice it, make sure to keep some crust on one side or the bread might fall in as you dip and stir.Heike did bring some ripe pears with as she said that many people enjoying dipping pears as well. It was a fantastic combo, and I’d recommend it as well.
- Skewer-style superiority. According to Heike, the normal, most secure, and possibly the Swiss way to skewer the bread on the fork is crust first. According to Thomas, who was raised in Germany, the best way is crust side last. You decide, but remember that you run a risk…
- Sing for your supper. If your bread (or whatever item you’re dipping) falls into the cheese, the honored tradition is that the offender must sing a song. Of course, you could also have them recite a poem or do something else, but keep your food on your fork!I almost had to sing, but I was also dipping for Michael at the time. Would that have meant that he had to sing?
- A spoonful of sugar … or in this case black tea and white wine, help the meal go down. Cheese fondue is considered to be quite a heavy meal, so this unusual pairing of beverages are traditionally served alongside the meal as they are said to aid in digestion.I know I didn’t have a heavy belly when I went to bed that night, so it’s a win in my book.
- An eggy ending. At the end of the fondue pot, after you’ve eaten the nice, golden, crusty cheese from the bottom, some people like to crack an egg in and scramble it up with the leftover cheese, some white or black pepper, and some nutmeg if you choose. Nutmeg is added to almost everything in this part of the world. Use those useful forks to scramble it and then to eat it too!
- And a Schnapps chaser. A shot of Schnapps is a traditional fondue chaser, also said to aid digestion. But don’t confuse American schnapps with the Schnaps of Europe. Around this area of Germany, I’ve come to know Schnaps as a clear, strong liquor made from fruit, think something closer to vodka. So-called Kirschwasser, or cherry schnapps, used to be the commonly available variety, as it was cheap to make. Other fruit varieties were for the more well off. These days, however, it’s easy to find Schnaps from many different fruits. And it’s very strong. Just a small shot’ll do ya.Of course, you don’t have to drink wine and tea and schnapps all with the same meal. You may always pick and choose according to your tastes.
Fondue is a leisurely meal, perfect to share on a cold night with friends with whom you can laugh and have fun.
I hope that if you haven’t tried it, that you do so soon, either with a friend who has a fondue set or at a restaurant, where they will prepare everything for you. There are more types of fondue than cheese, but I definitely recommend the traditional cheese fondue.
This is Heike's favorite cheese fondue recipe from a German-language book called Fondues by Cornelia Schinharl. Fondue is a treat, so consider splurging on some higher-quality ingredients to make the most of the special occasion and to bring out the best flavor in the combination of the few ingredients needed for the recipe.
- 1 garlic clove, halved
- 300 g (10.5 oz) Gruyere cheese, cubed
- 300 g (10.5 oz) Swiss Emmentaler cheese, cubed
- 300 ml (10 oz) good-quality, dry white wine
- 2 shot glasses-full of Kirchwasser (European-style cherry schnaps, which is clear)*
- 2 Tablespoons cornstarch
- white pepper, to taste
- nutmeg, freshly grated, to taste
- The recipe calls for about 400 g of crusty white bread, which is about 0.88 pounds, as a suggestion for dipping.
- Take your ceramic fondue pot and rub it well with the halved garlic cloves, all over the inside.
- Pour the wine in and set it over a medium to medium-high heat until just before boiling. If it boils, let it cool down a touch as too high of heat can cause the cheese to break down.
- Over low to medium heat, add the cheese cubes a little at a time to the wine. Let this all melt.
- Mix the Kirschwasser or other schnaps with the cornstarch and whisk into the cheese mixture. Turn the heat up to medium-high and bring the mixture to a boil to allow the starch to release and thicken it.
- Immediately thereafter, turn the heat down to low, and season to taste with pepper and nutmeg.
- Place over your fondue flame and enjoy! Remember to stir as you dip, to keep it from burning and to keep the mixture cohesive and flowing.
The original recipe gives a few suggestions for additional flavor options, such as fresh herbs, cayenne pepper, or mustard, that can be mixed into the final cheese mixture.
*A note about alcohol in general and kirschwasser in particular: Heike recommends that if the schnapps is not available, or if a less strong taste is desired, the same amount of white wine can be used in place of the schnapps when mixing with the cornstarch. She mentions that many people would choose not to use the extra alcohol at all and that most would probably just mix the cornstarch with a bit of cold water. The fondue will not be as strongly flavored then, which some people might like, and which children will probably prefer!