The situation: You’ve arrived at the home of your dinner host, who is likely a distant relative or a several times removed cousin of someone else whom you’ve met in Switzerland. These gracious country folk will feed just about anyone who is some how associated with their family members. Even if you don’t speak one of their four national languages, just arrive on time and you’ll receive a warm welcome. On the menu this evening is a traditional Swiss repast: fondue.
History: Dipping squares of bread into a blend of melted cheeses is now considered a chic cuisine option reminiscent of 1970’s-style dinner parties, but it originally began as frugal fare during Switzerland’s long, bitter winters. Mountain dwellers in the French-speaking Canton of Neuchâtel would preserve their cheeses and bake bread in advance to sustain themselves through the snowy season. Though the cheese was dense and the stale bread harder, resourceful folks discovered that melting the two together made each ingredient digestible, even delectable. They added dry wine from the fruitful Appalachian vineyards to create a savory, filling provision that they named after the French verb fondre, to melt.
Foundations: The most common variety of fondue is a balanced combination of soft Gruyere and sharp Emmenthaler cheeses, but the location of your host’s home might add some variation. In Geneva, the original Gruyere and Emmenthaler are combined with Walliser Bergkase, a nutty mountain cheese, and morel mushrooms. While they both use Gruyere cheese to start, the residents of Fribourg combine thick Vacherin in the pot and the people from Glarus add in their local green-colored Schabzieger. The natives of Eastern Switzerland prefer a blend of Appenzeller and Vacherin, and on top of that they add dry cider. Most of the select cheeses originated in their respective cantons, so each brimming pot of gooey goodness holds a short geography, and history lesson, inside.
In The Mix: The rest of the concoction consists of a splash of dry white wine, a sprinkling of flour or cornstarch, and a hint of garlic. Dipped into an earthenware or ceramic pot, called a caquelon, with long, heat-resistant skewers are cubed baguette bread and a variety of produce, such as sliced potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, apples and pears. Maybe there’s some leftover asparagus or mushrooms in the fridge- those will go in the mix too. Red and green peppers- you bet. Pineapples? Sure, why not? It’s a hodgepodge of edibles that expounds upon the meaning of the metaphorical “melting pot.”
Get comfortable: Your host’s choice of fuel for the caquelon depends on how long they’re planning on having you, which in most cases of exceptional Swiss hospitality is quite a while. You’ll likely be feasting with the endurance of butane, which can keep a fondue pot warm for up to nine hours on it’s low-heat setting. Expect to play 20 questions at the table -your cordial hosts will want to delve into your background, general interests and plans for the future. While you exchange life stories, someone will occasionally stir the pot’s ingredients to keep from lumping.
Le Dézaley Restaurant and Walliser Keller restaurant in Zürich or Fondue House in Lucerne are some of the better places to find fondue if you’re out and about. Most locals will tell you, though, that this family-style meal is best served in the comforts of home.
Proceed with Caution: Before dipping your first veggie or piece of bread, especially if there is wine on the table, be sure to wait for a toast. Having guests over is even more reason for the Swiss to clink glasses before dining, and you better believe that someone will notice if you sip or dip too soon.
With cheers, or prost, accomplished, spear your fondue dunks forcefully into the pot and swirl them around in figure eights with care -there are consequences for loosing bites within the melt. It’s an old tradition that a woman who drops food into the pot has to kiss a dinner companion next to her, and a man must buy the next round of drinks. Losing a morsel today might earn you dish duty instead of uncomfortable encounters with the family you’ve just met, but even so it’s quite the task after all that cheese has solidified on pots and plates.