This simple Swiss dish of melted cheese, white wine and aromatics isn’t just a joy to eat; it’s one of the most communal dining experiences you can have. When friends and family gather around the steaming, bubbling pot, fondue forks at the ready, conversation flows. It’s hearty, indulgent and easily customisable, requires barely any effort to prepare and showcases a few select ingredients in the best way possible. While the swathe of ‘fondue parties’ seen during the ‘70s might have faded away in the following decades, we think it’s high time that fondue came back into fashion. After all, who doesn’t love a big pot of melted cheese?
Fondue: a history
Dating back to seventeenth-century Zurich, fondue has been enjoyed in Switzerland for a long time. By the nineteenth century it was considered the country’s national dish, and when the Swiss Cheese Union started promoting it heavily to increase cheese consumption in the 1930s, it began to spread beyond Swiss borders and became increasingly associated with the snow-capped mountains of the Alps (despite originally being a dish enjoyed in the wealthier urban areas of the country). It proved an instant hit in America in the 1960s, when it was introduced to the US at the World’s Fair in New York, making its way into British homes soon after.
The popularity of fondue wasn’t just down to some clever marketing tactics, however. It was the perfect way to use up stale bread, which would soften once dipped in the melted cheese, and regional variations on the original meant there were plenty of different recipes to try – each with their own flavour profile.
Customs, traditions and variations
At its core, the foundations of fondue are simple. Rub a pot with a garlic clove, add white wine (with a little cornstarch to help stabilise the emulsification), tip in cubed or grated cheese and season. But of course, there are many details and specifics that transform an average fondue into a fantastic one.
First up, there’s the kit. Traditionally, the pot must be a caquelon, made from earthernware, stoneware, cast iron or porcelain. It’s then placed over a spirit burner or flame, which creates a consistent, gentle heat to keep the cheese at the perfect oozing consistency.
Then there’s the ingredients themselves. There are countless regional varieties of fondue, but almost all of them contain Le Gruyère AOP, the Swiss cheese best-suited to melting. Not all cheeses will melt to the right consistency, and while you’ll find fondues made with everything from cheddar to Vacherin, only Le Gruyère will give you the perfect consistency and traditional Swiss flavour.
The white wine is often the local variety, and depending on where you are in Switzerland there may be other cheeses, cream, a dash of kirsch, mushrooms or tomatoes added. Traditionally it would only be bread that’s dipped into the pot, but these days boiled potatoes are just as common. You might also find pickles and olives served on the side to cut through the fattiness.
Such a communal dish comes with its own customs and traditions, too. The most prized part of the fondue is called la religieuse, consisting of the crispy crust of over-cooked cheese that forms on the bottom of the pan. This is divided up between those at the dinner table after the melted cheese is finished. You’ll also find that if your piece of bread or potato falls from your fork and into the pot, you might be asked to pay a forfeit.