You may wonder why on earth I would start with a cheese fondue recipe, especially since I had just arrived in Geneva after 6 months of cooking and eating my way through Paris. Well, I start with this, because this question best mirrored my own sentiment upon arriving in Switzerland and getting busy with one of my favorite extracurricular activities: Eating in restaurants.
On the heels of Parisian dining I found that Swiss dining was somewhat, well, limited. At least this is what I found in the spring of 1991. Yes, there were many fine establishments serving haute cuisine, but for those preferring less of an impact on wallet, digestion, and trouser-size, this was not an option for frequent dining. For more casual outings, the common option was the local auberges. These were cafés and inns located in every town and village; a convenient stop for those who tired of eating at home. Quickly, one discovered, however, that variety and choice were not necessarily the operative terms when the menus were devised.
I do have a theory. Did you know that Switzerland is approximately the size of the combined area of Massachusetts and Connecticut and has 4 national languages? Did you know that for a small land-locked country, Switzerland is blessed with the alps, many lakes (Lake Geneva or Lac Lèman is the second largest lake in Europe), meadows and vineyards, cosmopolitan cities and tiny mountain villages? That it offers a sports-lovers’ heaven with myriad outdoor activities (skiing, hiking, white water rafting, sailing, hangliding, and the list goes on), and perhaps, more-tellingly, is the seat of one of the largest international communities in Europe as Geneva is home to the UN, WHO, WWF, the Red Cross, and more.
So, I think that when it came to the auberges, the Swiss were just plain spent in terms of variety. After all, they are Swiss, and to some, variety and choice are not words that leap to mind when describing the Swiss way of doing things. In fact, the auberges were a wonderful way to express their authentic Swiss-ness, if you will; variations, substitutions, alternatives, special requests were not on offer.
Which brings me to cheese fondue. Cheese would be considered a staple of the Swiss diet. After people, cows probably come in second in terms of population numbers (if not number one – I must check that.) The cows enjoy the countryside, chewing the very green grass, nibbling the lovely wildflowers, and generally having a blissful cow-life. They give milk, and wonderful things happen in terms of cheese products. All these happy, healthy cows make great cheese. Towns and villages have their own cheese that is named after the towns and villages. Cheese is served for breakfast, lunch and dinner in numerous forms (cold, melted, grilled, gratinéed.) During the harsh snowy winter months, cheese fondue was a traditional warm and satisfying dish to make with limited fresh products at hand. A little stale bread, some aged cheese from the cave, air-dried meats, pickled vegetables or cornichons, would sustain a family through the season.
And when you are living like a local, you do what the locals do. (Tip: If you have a problem with this philosophy, it’s best if you travel away frequently, or perhaps return home.) So, as the weeks became months and then years of living the Swiss life, cheese fondue became our staple of sorts. While not for summer dining*, it was fast and delicious on a cold evening, whether or not we had been skiing. All the accoutrements were at our disposal, and some of the homes we visited actually had a designated room for eating melted cheese in, as the potent smell of melted cheese could linger on after the meal. Did I mention that the Swiss are fastidious?
* My daughter would disagree about summer fondue dining. She is a summer-born child, and one of our traditions is to make a family dinner of choice for our children on their birthday. She chooses cheese fondue to this day, and so we do have the pleasure of enjoying it every summer. (She was born in Switzerland, lest we forget.)
This recipe is my version of the traditional fondue. Serves 4-6.
2 cups white wine – typically a Swiss white wine, but you may have noticed that this is rarely exported. I substitute a Semillon or a Sauvignon Blanc.
1 garlic clove, minced
1 lb. grated alpine cheese such as Gruyère, Emmental, Appenzel, Comté – Of all ingredients this is most important. A Gruyère cheese that says “Made in Wisconsin” is absolutely not the same as a genuine Swiss or French alpine cheese, and I recommend you try a taste test to see. I prefer using a mixture of Gruyère and Emmental.
3 tblsp. Kirsch or Calvados – as I have moved around and at times found it hard to purchase Kirsch, I substitute Calvados with nice results.
3 tblsp. cornstarch
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
Freshly ground black pepper
1 loaf peasant or sourdough bread, cut in 1″ cubes
Have all your ingredients ready before you begin.
Combine kirsch, cornstarch and nutmeg in a small bowl, stirring to combine.
Add wine and garlic to a large heavy saucepan. Heat over medium-low heat until tiny bubbles begin to form giving wine a fizzy appearance, without bringing to a boil.
Add cheese one handful at a time, stirring constantly until each handful is melted before adding the next.
Once cheese is added, continue stirring 1 minute – do not allow mixture to boil.
Stir in cornstarch mixture. Continue stirring until mixture thickens to fondue consistency.
Pour cheese mixture into a pre-warmed fondue pot and serve immediately with freshly ground black pepper.
Tip: Use bread cubes to stir the fondue in the fondue pot. Avoid letting the fondue come to a boil.