Winter is here and so is the melting pot
If you’re visiting Switzerland in winter, chances are you’d detect the pungent smell of cheese hanging heavy in the air—whether you’re skiing in snowed-out Zermatt or exploring the medieval-era Old Town quarters of Zurich or Geneva. For it is during the harsh winters that the Swiss huddle together over a pot of melted cheese and wine to celebrate their national dish—the fondue. Although tourists can often be found sampling this cheesy concoction during high summer, much to the amusement of the Swiss, the fondue is best enjoyed when the mercury dips.
The cheese fondue is Switzerland’s contribution to the culinary world much like Spain’s paella, Italy’s pasta, and Turkey’s döner kebabs. But more than treating it as a cultural export, the Swiss keep their fondue close to their hearth and dip into it when seeking comfort. In fact, they like their fondue so much that they also indulge in the non-cheesy version such as the fondue chinoise, in which slivers of sliced beef are cooked in a warm broth and eaten with a variety of sauces. Or there’s fondue bourguignonne, which uses hot oil, instead of broth, to cook the meat. And then there’s chocolate fondue—another Swiss hallmark—in which fresh fruit or cake is dipped.
Although the historical roots of the fondue remain debatable—there are suggestions that its mention can be found as early as in Homer’s Iliad in 800-725 BC where it is referred to as a mix of goat’s cheese, wine and flour. Its initial reference can be traced to a cookbook written by a Zurich dweller, Anna Margaretha Gessner, in the 17th century, where she refers to cooking cheese with wine. There are other versions that trace the fondue’s origins to the Alpine valleys where farmers created it by using leftover cheese and stale bread during bitter winters when fresh produce was rare. But the roots of the modern fondue date to the late 1800s, along the French Rhône-Alpes region bordering Geneva.
The name fondue is derived from fondre, which is French for “to melt”. The now defunct Swiss Cheese Union, which manipulated the demand for and sale of cheese till the 1970s, can also be credited with the championing of the fondue as the Swiss national dish. Following World War I, when the profitability of the cheese business plummeted, the allegedly corrupt union, desperate to raise sales, launched a country-wide marketing campaign popularizing the fondue and imposing it on Swiss households. It took on cult status around the 1970s when the Americans adopted it for their quick-on-the-go dinner parties. Ever since, the fondue has endured in popular imagination for all things Swiss—alongside rolling green hills and well-fed cows.
There is nothing superfluous about the fondue. Much like the Swiss, it is restrained and straightforward, its charm grounded in communal joviality. My first encounter with the fondue was at Geneva’s annual L’Escalade celebrations, where the town gathers to laud the defeat of Charles Emmanuel I, Duke of Savoy, who’d attacked Geneva on the night of 11–12 December 1602. The city hall was abuzz with mirth and loud cheers and I wondered if we had walked into the wrong party, given the Swiss’ intolerance for noise. But this racket is an annual, by-invitation only affair as much as it is an exception, and is organized to bring the community closer. Seated crammed on long benches, our elbows and knees grazing, natives and newcomers dipped long-handled forks with bread cubes into pots of warm, gooey, melted cheese in a bid to break the proverbial ice.
Contrary to popular belief, however, the fondue is not the only cheese dish that the Swiss adore. There’s the raclette too, originating in the Valais region, which is perfect for a large family meal or a cosy party. The cheese wheel, placed on a raclette grill to melt, is scraped and eaten with vegetables, meat and bread.
It’s not Swiss if there are no rules. The Swiss are known for being intensely organized and appreciate conformity. So the act of eating fondue, even if you’re sharing it with friends, comes with agreed-upon rules of conduct.
First, your fork should never come into contact with your tongue and teeth as you tear the bread off the fork because it returns to the caquelon (earthenware fondue pot) for subsequent bites. “Double-dipping” is also said to be frowned upon—you spear your cube of bread, dip it into the bubbling cheese, give it a nice twirl and put it on your plate before eating it. You repeat the same set of action for every new cube of bread.
Second, pair your fondue with white wine, apple juice or black tea. It is widely believed that fizzy drinks, especially sparkling water, can lead to fairly unpleasant consequences for the stomach.
Third, when you’ve made it through the gloopy cheese and reached the bottom of the pot, you’d find a layer of cheese hardened to a crisp. It even has a name, albeit a rather odd one—la religieuse, meaning “the nun” and the usage remains shrouded in mystery. Never leave la religieuse uneaten. And never polish it off by yourself. For most Swiss, this is the best part of the meal and everyone is eager for a crunchy bite. Of course, being Swiss, they go about it with utmost civility. Tradition has it that if you drop your bread in the caquelon, you buy wine for the entire table. At last, reserve gives way to some frivolity to match the wine and cheese party in a pot.