Are you fond of fondue?

Are you fond of fondue?

by Karen Bradbury
Stripes Europe

Across northern Europe, the crops have been sown in the fields, and soon we’ll be feasting on freshly-grown fruit and veggies such as new potatoes, crisp radishes, asparagus and strawberries.

Before we enter a new culinary season, however, let’s pay a final ode to one of winter’s greatest treats: the gooey, savory cheese fondue.

If the word sounds vaguely French, that’s because it is. It’s the past participle of the word “fondre,” meaning to melt. The caquelon is the name for the pot in which the cheese is melted, usually with the help of a réchaud, a portable stove powered by a candle or wick doused in spirits.

The most traditional way to enjoy cheese fondue is swirled around chunks of crusty bread. As classic as the cheese and bread pairing might seem, fondue as we know it today isn’t a particularly old dish. Some sources suggest that in Switzerland, the undisputed land of its origin, it was a way for farm families of meager means to make use of their limited resources. Other sources dispute that, pointing out that a rich cheese such as Gruyère was hardly an item poor rural folk could afford to put on their tables.

The perception of fondue as a specialty of the Swiss Alps has much to do with a cheese cartel and clever marketing techniques.  By the late 19th century, recipes were being published for what was coming to be seen as the country’s national dish. Fondue got another boost when the Swiss Cheese Union took control of the dairy market. They created slick marketing campaigns to promote the consumption of cheese and gave away fondue kits as promotional swag. At the World’s Fair held in New York in 1964, fondue was served at a restaurant in the Swiss Pavilion, and soon Americans were converts too.

A fondue shared among friends gathered around a roaring fireplace in an Alpine chalet between ski runs is a treat that’s been sorely missed in this winter of no travel. But ski areas remain closed, and dipping utensils into a common bowl is definitely not a COVID-recommended behavior. This is the year to enjoy fondue at home.

You don’t need to go out and buy fancy equipment to host a family fondue party. As the cheese is best melted slowly, a crockpot will do nicely, as will the double boiler method, in which a bowl sits atop a pan of simmering water. To keep the cheese warm while serving, a sturdy ceramic pot is set atop a tea light candle holder. If you’d like to have your very own fondue set, instead of splashing out on a new one, keep your eyes peeled next time you’re at a flea market or thrift store.

While the aforementioned chunks of bread are the most traditional item for dipping, they’re far from the only thing that benefits from a cheesy coating. Pair fondue with apple slices, steamed broccoli, carrots, cherry tomatoes, boiled potatoes, roasted bell peppers, radishes, pears, figs and whatever else around the house might need eating up.

As for the star of the show, the cheese itself? Classic recipes call for a half-and-half combination of Gruyère with another cheese such as Emmentaler, Gouda or Fontina, grated and combined with dry white wine, pepper and nutmeg, along with cornstarch to prevent the cheese from clumping.

If you live in the heart of Europe, you’ll find a specially prepared fondue cheese that needs no more than to be heated up widely available, sold even in the most modest of discount supermarkets. This ready-made fondue is a hot seller around Christmas time, but there’s nothing stopping you from enjoying it at other times of year. April 11, touted at National Cheese Fondue Day back in the states, would do nicely, so why not treat yourself?

 

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