As a child, I was an avid reader of Asterix and Obelix comics and there are a couple of images from the series that made an indelible mark. One was of Obelix furious and red in the face (I was always a little partial to Obelix) after Dogmatix had somehow been threatened. Another was of some poor, pathetic Roman who keeps losing his piece of bread in a large cauldron full of fondue. As the comic progressed (I think it must have been the one where Asterix and Obelix are in Switzerland), the cheese stretches all over the room and all over the partakers of the meal. That was my first image of fondue – it seemed fun, crazy and probably amazingly delicious.
The first time I actually tried fondue, I was twelve and in Switzerland. Boy, did I think it was gross – why would someone mess things up by adding alcohol? The other fondue on offer at that time was a meat fondue – where you dip cubes of meat in boiling oil – and at that age and given the alcoholic alternative, it’s where I focused my attention.
More recently, I traveled to the Jura with our lead cheese buyers, Kurt and David. On the trip, we had the opportunity to try two French fondues. They were both delicious but the one Claude, the Chef du Cave at Marcel Petite, made for us was hands down the best fondue I have ever had. I offered to help with the preparation and was assigned the role of pot stirring to make sure that nothing burned. Claude, meanwhile, tasted, added and adjusted. What cheese went into the fondue? Only Comté. But, he used three different ages of the cheese, including some that had been aged for 5 years! What else went into the pot? Wine from the region and mustard. The mustard provoked some discussion amongst our French hosts – Philippe, the General Manager, was surprised when he found out it had been added and tut-tutted a bit. However, I am generally a pro-mustard person and I think that in this case, Claude’s careful tasting and adjusting perfectly incorporated the mustard.
When we had worked our way through most of the Comté fondue, it was then that Claude introduced an egg to the pot, mixing it into the fondue remnants. I think this is a trick to get you to help clean the pot – it certainly worked on me. I had thought I was full but, of course, I had to dive in again and try the fondue with the egg in it!
On the cheese counter, we often help folks put together a selection of cheeses for their fondue pot. We also prepare fondue packs for easy grab and go. Regularly requested and regularly recommended cheeses include: Gruyère, Comté, Emmentaler, Vacherin Fribourgeois, Bergkäse Berghof Bio, Appenzeller and Beaufort. Finding the combination that is right for you can be something of an art and there are always questions like the mustard one to settle. Some folks like to add a dash of lemon juice while others opt to sprinkle in a bit of nutmeg. That said, the general pattern of fondue making is pretty well established – two or three cheeses seems pretty standard, as does the addition of a dry white wine, a little bit of flour or cornstarch, a dash of eau de vie, a clove or two of garlic and, of course, some salt and pepper to taste. As far as the bread is concerned, crusty bread is really the main criteria – and I would stay away from sourdough bread, to allow the flavor of the fondue to dominate.
What to drink with your fondue? When we were in the Jura, local wines were served with the meal. Beer is another popular pairing and I have also read that in Switzerland, black tea and/or a glass of kirsch are traditional.
While fondue is perhaps the headliner melted cheese dish, there are a couple of others that I have been looking into that sound pretty amazing. Fonduta, for example. When I first heard the term ‘fonduta,’ I thought it was simply a diminutive of fondue. In fact, fonduta refers to an Italian variation on the melted cheese theme. Specifically, it incorporates Fontina Val d’Aosta AND butter AND eggs AND white truffles! Needless to say, it’s a bit richer than its Swiss and French counterparts. Another difference: instead of being served in a pot, fonduta is whipped and poured over each person’s plate, a plate full of potatoes, polenta or rice.
Another classic melted cheese dish is Aligot – this one is a signature dish of the Auvergne in the south central region of France. Some recipes for Aligot specify cheese curds for regional cheeses like Salers, Cantal and Laguiole – others simply name the cheeses themselves. However, it seems that even if you are not using the curds of these cheeses, you should be looking for a supply of young cheese from the region. Why? When prepared right, Aligot has a smooth, elastic texture (perhaps closer than actual fondue to what was depicted in Asterix and Obelix) – young cheeses are generally better melters than aged cheeses because their protein strands are stronger, better able to retain the fats in the cheese and withstand stretching. (If you’re interested in the science behind good melting cheeses, be sure to check out this article in Culture magazine.) So, once you have young cheese from the Auvergne, it gets mixed with mashed potatoes and (optionally, although I would be in favor of adding them) garlic and bacon. Purportedly, bread was originally used in the dish but once the potato was introduced to France, the switch was made to mashed potatoes. I have never made this dish but after checking out several recipes on-line, it’s definitely going into the “to try” stack of recipes! The fact that it is recommended served with a nice juicy steak, catapults it to the top of that stack.
In case you’re interested in giving fondue a try on one of these cold winter nights, here’s the Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge house recipe:
Formaggio Kitchen Fondue
1 ½ cups dry white wine
1 large garlic clove
Freshly ground white pepper and nutmeg to taste
2 tsp flour
6 Tbsp Slivovitz (plum brandy) or eau-de-vie of your choice
Heat wine and garlic in a heavy saucepan over medium heat. When the wine is hot, remove the garlic. Add cheese, white pepper and nutmeg. Stir over medium heat until the cheese melts. In a separate pot make a slurry with the flour and brandy (or a bit of white wine) while gently heating it. Add the slurry to the cheese mixture. Boil gently, stirring for a few minutes. Transfer saucepan to a candle warmed fondue pot. Serve with cubes of good, crusty or even slightly stale bread.