Loving fondue is so easy, it’s almost boring. If you love cheese, you probably love fondue. And yet every time I make fondue I love it even more. I taste the hint of wine and garlic and the nutty saltiness of the Gruyere and suddenly I feel like I’m in a cabin with a wood-burning stove in the mountains between Geneva and Lausanne where I first had fondue.
That’s kind of a lie. The first fondue I ever had was at Fondue Fred’s in Berkeley, which was fine, but not nearly as memorable as every other fondue I’ve had since. I ended up in Switzerland not long after that night at Fondue Fred’s, visiting a Swiss friend from college with three girlfriends from California. It was August and we’d just finished our bachelor’s degrees and were traveling a bit in Europe before all heading our separate ways into adulthood.
We told Sebastien that we absolutely had to have fondue while we were in Switzerland. “Fondue? In summer???” he asked with that perfect heavy French accent. Yes, fondue in summer. It's also delicious in fall, winter or spring.
Sebastien’s family raises cows on their small farm. During the winter the cows live “downstairs,” as he says, in the village, but in the summer all the cows are moved “upstairs” to the pastureland in the mountains above the village. Sebastien’s family pays a nominal annual rent to the village to use the pastureland that also gives them the right to use a small cabin.
Since that first trip I’ve spent many nights in that cabin, keeping warm by the wood stove, dipping bread into melted cheese that somehow tastes like so much more, drinking wine and schnaps and telling stories with old and new friends from around the world. And eventually I even tried my hand at making the fondue on that stove myself, getting tips, strangely enough, from a Russian friend who married a Swiss girl and is now quite the expert. His main advice, which echoes Swiss exhortations, is to stir in a figure-eight to keep the cheese moving and not gathered up into a ball in the middle.
There are lots of fondue recipes out there, some more traditional than others. Wikipedia has a nice breakdown of the various cheese used across the regions of Switzerland. As Sylvie Bigar says in her piece on fondue for Saveur, “each region believes its local cheeses make the best fondue, and the choice is entirely up to the cook....Perhaps fondue resonates so well with the Swiss because variations unite the regions around the pot: a mirror of a nation of four official languages within 16,000 square miles.”
I learned to make moitié-moitié fondue, which is half gruyere and half vacherin Fribourgeois. I have found it impossible to find vacherin Fribourgeois here in California and at the suggestion of of the owner of our local cheese shop have experimented with varying amounts of emmentaler, brie and most recently a cheese called scharfe maxx, which was fantastic. For the brie fondue I upped the gruyere to 75 percent and cut the rind off of the brie.
One thing to keep in mind is that fondue does require some specific equipment. I really prefer the traditional caquelon because you can make the fondue in it on the stove and then move it to its stand on the table. You could just make fondue in a regular pot and either eat it super fast or figure out another way to keep it warm at the table, like with a hot plate. Here is a round-up of some of your fondue pot options.
Fondue from Switzerland (a moitié-moitié adaptation)
serves 2 to 4
half a pound gruyere
half a pound slightly softer cheese (I used scharfe Maxx, but lots of cheese would work)
2-3 garlic cloves
1 cup white wine
1 teaspoon kirsch
1 teaspoon cornstarch
a baguette or other good bread that will hold up once dunked in liquid cheese
Grate all of your cheese before you start cooking. I found out by accident that using a finer grater (I use one you’d probably use for a quick grate of parmesan over pasta) almost guarantees a successful fondue. The tiny pieces of cheese melt instantaneously into the wine in the fondue pot.
I always slice up my baguette or bread ahead of time, although Sebastien now tells me that is “bad practice” because you are “choosing” the size of bread for your guests. I will probably keep slicing it up into bite-size pieces, don’t tell!
Peel your garlic cloves and slice them in half. I think one clove is traditional, but I really like garlic. Rub the cut sides of the garlic all over the inside of your pot. I always just leave the garlic pieces in for a bonus garlic treat midway through my fondue. Then add your wine and turn the heat up to medium.
While the wine is coming to a boil, mix your kirsch and cornstarch into a kind of a slurry. Add this to the wine when all the cornstarch is dissolved into the kirsch.
Once the liquid in the pot has come to a boil, you can start adding your cheese in by the handful, stirring in a figure eight the entire time and letting each handful melt into the wine before adding the next. I keep the heat low to medium during this period. You want it hot enough for the cheese to melt, but you don’t need it bubbling all over the place.
After all the cheese is in the pot, continue cooking and stirring for another five minutes or so for it to thicken up slightly. Then I move the pot from the stovetop to the stand, light the little burner below and dig in.
Fondue is traditionally served with pickles, which cuts the richness nicely. I like to have sliced apples as well and have sometimes done a quick pickled apple to go with fondue. There’s a lot of debate over what should be drunk with fondue. I was taught white wine or black tea by my Swiss friends, but have successfully had cold water with my fondue without it turning the cheese in my stomach into a hard, indigestible ball as I was warned it would.